Hygge for Writers

The past year has been the same as every other year: a mixture of good and bad. At one point I made the mistake of thinking, and even more dangerously, saying out loud, that my life was running smoothly with everything going well. I don’t believe in tempting fate, but I did regret those words when the next challenge came and hit me in the face, as inevitably it would.

In terms of writing, I have secured an agent but, as yet, no publisher. I am half way through the second draft of my next novel and, if I wasn’t frightened of tempting fate again, I’d say it was going pretty well.

As always, reading books has seen me through. If I can’t find solace in literature, then I know I’m in a bad way. That and painting my nails. I only paint my nails when I’m miserable so if you see me with coloured nails, be gentle with me.

One of the books I enjoyed reading this year was The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. It takes a look at the Danish way of life from the viewpoint of a journalist who tries it out first hand and examines why it is that Danish people prove to be so unanimously happy. Nowadays, you can’t open a magazine or enter a bookshop or buy a candle without coming across advice on how to get Hygge. Here, then, are my own top five personal remedies for combating life’s stresses and strains.

  1. Light a fire.
  1. Paint your nails.
  1. Buy something nice.
  1. Read a book.
  1. Write a novel.

Wait a minute. Isn’t writing a novel painstakingly difficult? Yes, exactly, it is. You will tie yourself in knots writing a novel. You will find yourself wrestling with problems so obscure, so arbitrary and so utterly pointless you are guaranteed to be taken far away from the rest of your life. Your novel is your constant companion – it goes everywhere with you. It clings to you and demands attention and it will occasionally reward your care with glorious, sudden insights at the least expected moments, such as when you’re squeezing onto a crowded train or stirring the gravy. It’s not hygge but it’s something better. It’s torture. I highly recommend it.

Happy Christmas everyone.

My beloved hygge writing corner

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Writer versus Reader

In a recent discussion with a group of friends about a novel we’d all read – a contemporary thriller which they loved and I didn’t – I was told I was approaching it too much as a writer, instead of as a reader. I employed too critical an eye, analysing plot, character, motivation, style. I just wasn’t giving myself over to the story.

This was most definitely true. I couldn’t relinquish my inner author, because the book was, in my opinion, too seriously flawed. The writing got in the way of my enjoyment. Was I wrong? Maybe, for not only did all my friends enjoy the book, but I also happened to read a tweet by an editor (not the book’s editor) whose comment after finishing it was, wow!

It sounds very arrogant of me to criticise and I’m not saying my writing is any better. I try very hard to make it better, but it’s not for me to judge whether or not I succeed.

One thing though: I don’t always read books with my inner author engaged. It is possible for me to become an out and out reader. The book I’m reading right now has absolutely got me by the throat. I have abdicated all my critical awareness in the pursuit of pure enjoyment. From time to time, as I read on, I tell myself I really should stop and try to work out why it’s so damn good.

Last night, two thirds of the way through, I suddenly clocked that it was written in the present tense. Nothing too astonishing in that, except that it’s the kind of thing that, were it poorly executed, I would have noticed long before. And now that I did notice, I didn’t care. I don’t want to analyse it. When I get to the end, then, I’ll have a think about what exactly makes this book work.

I suppose that’s the effect most writers hope to achieve. You want your reader to be carried along, oblivious to method. The more critical the reader, the more gratifying it is if you can induce them to surrender their judgmental eye and immerse themselves in the experience.

Given that reading is such a personal, subjective activity, who decides if a book is good or bad? Is it just a question of taste, or is there an objective measure? I think the answer is, it’s a bit of both. Some books really are badly written. But some readers are more demanding than others. Within the realms of average to brilliant writing, there’s a lot of room for differences of opinion based on personal taste. This is a good thing, because it means there’s a lot of scope out there for all sorts of books to find an audience. Not to mention, the opportunities for some good, heated discussions.

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Sit at a Typewriter and Bleed

A couple of people have mentioned to me that they haven’t noticed me blogging of late. So, what have I been up to? Apart from hiding from the sun, of course. Well, I’ve been writing. Nothing new in that. But, what is kind of new, is that I have been trying to enjoy writing.

When I went on my Icelandic Retreat earlier in the year and the faculty of illustrious authors was lined up for a final question and answer session, someone from the audience asked about the process of writing. One of the authors grabbed hold of the microphone and proceeded to tell us how much she absolutely loved it. She was at her desk first thing in the morning, tap tapping away on her keyboard before her husband left for work. She would spend all day having such fun with her marvellously entertaining characters and, when her husband returned home in the evening, she’d still be at her desk, having lost all track of time and completely forgotten to feed herself, without having budged an inch. 

While others in the room smiled and nodded in recognition of this sweet scenario, my heart sank. My god, I thought, is this what writing is like for these people? When I sit down to write, I am overcome within the first ten minutes by a desperate longing to unload the dishwasher. Plus, there’s no way I’d ever forget to feed myself, as I need to pour a gallon of tea and a packet of chocolate digestives down my throat just to make it from the first sentence to the next.

At the Q&A session, the microphone was passed to the next author in line who took it reluctantly, hesitated for a moment, then said, ‘I hate writing.’ Everyone laughed. Ha ha. No please, I thought, don’t let that be a joke. He went on to quote another writer (I can’t remember who) who apparently once said something like, ‘I love having written.’ Yes. Yes. Yes.

Writing is only enjoyable once it’s over. Or, on the infrequent occasions when it’s going really well. The first writer who grabbed that microphone must, I suppose, be blessed with a ready backlog of of ideas, scenes and characters just waiting to spill out onto the page and they must spill out in an instantly coherent, imaginative and engaging way. Writing really isn’t like that for me.

Recently, I read Ruby Wax’s ‘A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled,’ in which she reminds us how much time we spend planning for an idyllic future which, when it arrives, we often forget to enjoy. For example, think about how much time we spend preparing for a holiday – choosing where to go, working and saving for it, getting our money exchanged, arranging dog sitters etc. And yet, how often do we find ourselves on that holiday thinking ahead to the next holiday, perhaps, or to when we get back home, or simply forgetting to cherish the moment in hand?

So, I’ve been trying to remember to enjoy writing, because that, supposedly, is what I want to do.

Mindfulness apparently takes a lot of practice. People go on mindfulness retreats in order to practice it. Well, recently, I went on another retreat to practice writing, to the lovely converted clocktower at Arvon’s Shropshire centre, The Hurst. Here, I had a self-contained flat with a desk, a shared kitchen with ready prepared home-cooked meals to pop in the microwave and all the provisions I needed. Peace and quiet, beautiful surroundings and a dishwasher that someone else unloaded before I ever got to it.

Once you have resigned yourself to the fact that there is no other task to perform, no excuse for distraction, you find you can stay at your desk for a remarkably long time and you can produce a remarkable amount of work. You can even enjoy the process, because you know that you will have written a considerable amount, not by the end of the week, or month, or year, but by the end of the day. I swore when I went home I would keep this up. I would keep enjoying it. But I failed. I couldn’t manage it any more than I can manage to go from one moment to the next thinking how wonderful life is.

Most of the time, when I’m writing I’m looking over my shoulder at what I’ve just written and I’m thinking it’s crap. Or, I simply can’t get the next words out the way I see them in my mind. That’s what makes it hard work, most of the time. That’s the reality.

And whilst it’s true that I did produce more material on my retreat, after I returned home and the idyllic veil had fallen away, I read over what I’d written and I saw that it was no better in terms of quality than what I usually write. There was as much editorial work to be done on it as ever.

I guess I should give myself a break and stop berating myself for not finding the writing process a font of unadulterated joy. It is a process towards an end. I am working towards the goal of having written. I am working towards finishing another novel. There will be times when I enjoy it, but more often it will be a struggle. Just like life itself. It may not always be joyful, but hopefully I can look back on it with some pride and satisfaction.

The title of this post, by the way, is taken from a quote from Hemingway who said, ‘ There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’

 

 

One thing I can enjoy without fail, however, is walking my dogs in the Autumnal morning sunshine

One thing I can enjoy without fail, however, is walking my dogs in the Autumnal morning sunshine

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Guest Blog About Never Giving Up

I’ve written a guest blog for the Writers and Artists website about why writers sometimes give up too soon in their quest for an agent. You can read it here.

 

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Yes! I have an Agent!

Hurray!

Does this mean I’m going to get published now? No, I’m afraid not. There are plenty of writers represented by very good agents who don’t make it to publication. What it does mean is that publishers may now be willing, at least, to take a look at my novel. It means someone in the industry is prepared to invest her time and energy in trying to secure me a deal. It means I have passed through one of the key portals. It remains to be seen if I stall here, or if I continue to the next level.

I have often wondered what it would feel like to sign with an agent. It feels great, of course. There is no denying the exhileration of reading that email containing an offer of representation (of which I was lucky to receive more than one). I managed to seriously aggravate a calf injury by skipping across the kitchen in my slippers.

It is also a huge relief. It’s taken time and persistence to get here. A lot of that time was spent simply waiting. Some agents, including those who requested the full manuscript, took a very long time to get back to me. It’s easy to lose faith and to fear that a firm offer may never quite materialise. So, relief, as well as joy, is the order of the day.

It feels strange, too. Strange to think that my book is now in the hands of another. Someone else is at the helm. It takes a leap of faith to surrender that control. I am no longer the person making the pitch, sending out the submission and I will no longer be the first to view the response. But, as well as feeling strange, it’s wonderfully liberating. Hell, why not let someone else handle all that stuff? Meanwhile, I can get on with my writing.

That’s the other great thing about it: the amount of time this frees up. Trying to find an agent is a time consuming process. It involves, not just sending out your opening chapters, but researching the best way to do this, attending agents’ talks and pitching events, writing and re-writing that bloody synopsis. No more.

I am realistic, I hope, about the prospects of publication. I know it’s a tall order. It’s heartening, at least, to know that an unbiased and experienced professional has faith in my novel. It has come out of the slush pile, let’s see where it can go next.

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The Meaninglessness of a First Draft

Whilst I’ve been living my normal life – walking the dogs, clearing out the kitchen cupboards, competing in swimming championships, laying plans for an orangery (I say!) – I have also been writing another novel. Surreptitiously. Almost, I might say, without noticing. I can report that I’m now nearing the end of my first draft. One big, final scene to write and then it’s all in the bag.

I have no idea what this novel is like. Really. I set out with a rough plan, a few character outlines and the main arc of a story. Every day that I could, I sat down and wrote 500 words or more. Some days I couldn’t. Some days I didn’t. Bit by bit, however, without my paying too much attention, the novel got written.

Having barely glanced back over what I’ve written, I know very little about it. I am aware of some obvious differences to my previous novel. This one has a much smaller cast of characters. There is less inter-play between characters, less dramatic cause and effect. The plot is simpler. The conflict more internal.

I have included more telling in this novel. My previous novel was show, show, show, perhaps because it was conceived during my MA in Creative Writing where we all know ‘show don’t tell’ is the overriding mantra. When I re-drafted that novel recently, I added more telling, more interiority. Sometimes the reader needs to be told, not shown, how a character thinks or feels.

Whilst on the subject of my previous novel, I’ve finally reached a point where I am, dare I say it, pretty damn satisfied with it. I’ve taken a long time to reach that point, with much processing of feedback, gaining of distance and re-evaluations.

I attended an author’s event recently at which Maggie O’Farrell gave a reading from her latest novel, followed by an interview and Q&A. When asked how many times she drafted her novels, she asked the audience to guess. ‘Twice? Three times?’ members of the audience offered. Nope. She estimated it was at least forty. Forty drafts! Music to my ears.

I don’t consider this to be the sign of a weak writer. I consider it the sign of a meticulous self-editor and someone who takes their writing very seriously: a professional.

I know from experience that, when I say I have completed a first draft, it means very little. It means I have some words to play with. A story to shape. Characters to make credible. But before I get onto any of that, I need to write the final scene. It’s a big, high drama scene. Quite a challenge, in fact. Which, no doubt, is why I’m writing this blog instead. I’m going to quickly change tabs on my computer now and see if I can surreptitiously write the finale without noticing that I’m writing it. A few thousand words with my eyes half shut. And then, once it’s done, I’ll be ready to give the book my undivided attention.

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Competitive Writing

Next weekend I shall be competing in the European Masters Swimming Championships. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But it’s really not. I’m just a plodder, not one of the serious swimmers. My goals are to post a decent time (for me), not to come last in my age group and, most of all, not to attract the dreaded sympathy applause.

One of the things I’ll enjoy most is the camaraderie and support of my team mates and my fellow competitors. We’re all in this together. It’s a bit like being amongst my writing friends. We support one another, we moan collectively about our failures, and we rejoice at our conquests.

Writers are amongst the most supportive group of people I know. I might have given up writing if it hadn’t been for the encouragement and understanding I’ve received from my fellow writers. But, what about the competition between us?

When a writing friend achieves success, I am happy for them. Of course I am. But, because their success highlights my obscurity, it can serve to fan the flames of self-doubt. Similarly, when I see someone fail or falter, whilst genuinely disappointed for them, I take some comfort in knowing others face the same struggles I do. 

Turning back to swimming for a moment, there is a piece of advice that coaches love to dish out to their swimmers. It goes, ‘Swim your own race.’ When you dive in, you should have a strategy based on an understanding of your strengths and limitations. You must not allow others to divert you from your personal strategy. This is especially true of long distance events. Some swimmers go out hard on a 1500m, leading the field by a country mile, and hanging on as best they can till the end. Others start off more slowly and build into the race, reeling in the leaders during the closing stages with a strong finish. The swimmer who is best suited to a slower beginning must not allow himself, or herself, to be panicked by the leaders going out fast. They must keep to their own pace, or else they will surely ‘die.’ 

There is a parallel here, naturally, to be drawn with writing. When my fellow writers race ahead to the finish line – when they complete their novels and go on to acquire top agents and lucrative book deals – it can put me in a panic. It can make me want to rush ahead to be where they are. To finish my novel as fast as possible and fire it off to a hundred agents and by-pass the meticulous, arduous work that I know I personally have to undertake to make my writing the best it can be. 

This is when I have to remind myself that writing is not a competitive sport. Yes, we all want to get published. We all want as many people as possible to read and enjoy our work. We all want recognition and acclaim. But it is not a race. There is no first, second or third. There is only the work itself. This is what I am striving for as a writer: to produce the best work I can.

So, next weekend, I’m going to try to remember to swim my own race. And when it comes to my writing, I’m going to continue at my own pace. Hopefully, with a little luck, I might make it to the finish line.

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The Elite European swimmers at the London Olympic pool prior to the Masters competition

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The Magic of Iceland

Following on from my previous blog, the question many friends have been asking me since my return is, how was Iceland? As in Iceland, the place, not the writing retreat. I feel somewhat unqualified to answer. Firstly, I spent very little time indeed in Iceland and most of it cooped up in a hotel attending writing workshops. Secondly, the brief time I did spend out and about was largely marred by my own incompetence.

Take, for example, the Blue Lagoon, which I visited on my way from the airport to Reykjavik. As I basked in the milky blue waters amidst the alien volcanic landscape, I noticed people all around me sporting selfie sticks. I realised this wasn’t, after all, the most original or trail-blazing experience. That evening, a fellow retreater told me how she’d taken herself off instead to the local geothermal beach, which was selfie-free, and joined the locals in the practice of rubbing coffee granules onto the body before bathing.

My fellow participants, mostly from the US or Canada, were far more intrepid than me, and far less defeatist about the short amount of time on offer. They managed, somehow, to catch the northern lights, visit glaciers, eat sharks and discover underground comedy clubs and experimental music performances in downtown Reykjavik.

When I ventured into Reykjavik during a free workshop period, I got lost in the suburbs and, running out of time, had to give up, having visited precious few key landmarks. ‘It’s not a city with an obvious gravitational pull towards the centre,’ I explained to a new writer friend back at the hotel, trying to justify my failure. ‘Gee,’ she said, imagining an adventure, ‘I just love to get lost.’

Writing workshops concluded, the third day was to be given over to sightseeing. On offer were two bus tours: the well-trodden Golden Circle tour or the alternative ‘literary’ Borgarfjordur tour. I opted for the Golden Circle. I wanted Iceland’s gems handed to me on a plate. However, when the bus stopped after only ten minutes at the Kjarvalsstadir art gallery for a reading by an eminent Icelandic author, I realised I was on the wrong tour.

I was devastated. I would return home without seeing the geological triumvirate of the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall, the great spouting Geysir and the Pingvellir rift valley where the North American and Eurasian continental plates were tearing apart. I climbed back on the bus feeling bereft and stupid.

Our tour guide introduced himself. He was a geophysicist who had published forty textbooks on subjects including geology, volcanology and glaciology. He had also published seven volumes of poetry and four novels. Ha, I thought. Now, at least, everyone else on the bus feels stupid too. As we skirted Hvalfjordur Fjord, site of the Allied Arctic convoys, he pointed towards the mountains and remarked, ‘I am also a mountaineer.’

We lunched at Snorrastofa, home of celebrated medieval chieftain and writer Snorri Sturluson. Standing by Snorri’s old geothermal bathing pool a fellow passenger told me, ‘You know, I’ve done the Golden Circle before but, to be honest, nice as this tour is, I wish I’d done it again.’

‘Oh yea,’ another chimed in, ‘the Golden Circle is absolutely spectacular.’

I descended the bus at our next stop with eyes downcast, traipsing disconsolately after the others. The sun came out to illuminate the turquoise swirls of the Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls. Wait. Did someone say waterfalls? Yes! Ribbons of water cascaded down the lava riverbank, spooling out of the landscape. By now, my fellow travellers had taken it upon themselves to cheer me up. They slapped me on the back as I took out my camera. ‘We’re boiling eggs at Deildartunguhver next!’

And so it was. We ate the eggs cooked by our guide in the bubbling hot springs, accompanied by smoked salmon and ginger beer. The sun came out again and brought with it a rainbow. Steam rose in the air and enshrouded the pipe carrying hot water to Icelandic homes, stretching away into the hills.

‘I hear The Golden Circle tour has experienced heavy precipitation throughout the day,’ said our guide. Whoops of glee broke out on my behalf.

On the way home, our guide recited an ancient Icelandic poem before treating us to an in depth account of the current political landscape. He concluded by saying, ‘Four years ago, I myself ran for president.’

Far from feeling inadequate, I returned to Reykjavik strangely empowered. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

And that, my friends, is how Iceland was.

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The Writer’s Chair

I have recently returned from a writers’ retreat which involved, amongst other delights, two full days of writing workshops with an impressive line up of authors. The biggest draw for me was the author, Miriam Toews, whose book, All My Puny Sorrows, I read last summer and loved. The other draw was the fact that the retreat took place in Iceland.

Putting Iceland aside for the moment, it can be cause for apprehension when you meet an author you admire. You want so much to like them. In the case of Miriam Toews, because her book deals heavily with autobiographical content, I felt I had a pretty good idea of what kind of person she was. I felt certain I would like her. In fact, my notion of myself as a discerning reader depended upon it. 

The room for her workshop was laid out with tables in the shape of a U facing a single chair at the front. Toews chose not to take up residence in the facing chair. ‘We are all writers,’ she said. ‘There is no divide here. I should be sitting with you.’ Compare her words with those of a celebrated visiting writer on a different retreat I attended some years ago, who said from his position of splendid isolation, ‘You too could be sitting here one day.’  

I was right about liking her. Toews’ workshops were disarmingly laid back. We basically hung out as a group chatting about various aspects of writing. There was no mystique or pretension about her. She spoke passionately about the writing process and gave an honest appraisal of her own limitations.

This comradely approach was shared by the other authors. Neel Mukherjee told us, for example, about the rejections he had encountered on his journey towards the Man Booker shortlist. Adelle Waldman divulged how the failure of her first novel to achieve publication made the writing of the second so much harder, because she no longer laboured under the dreamy expectation of success. She also described the awkwardness of justifying her existence to friends and family when all she had to show for herself was a string of part-time jobs and a word document.

These successfully published authors agreed that the dividing line between recognition and anonymity was very fine. Once upon a time, they had been on our side of the line. They had the courtesy to suggest that what separated ‘them’ from ‘us’ could simply boil down to luck. But, of course, it isn’t only luck. There is also the writing itself.

Many people want to be ‘a writer.’ There is a whole industry built around fanning the aspirations of wannabes, including creative writing courses and retreats such as this. And now, with the advent of self-publishing, pretty much anyone can get to live the dream, however transient and flimsy that dream may be. But what really matters isn’t which chair you take in the workshop. The important struggle isn’t the struggle to get published. It’s the struggle to write well. Fortunately, we also talked about that. We looked at ways to make our writing better. We looked at novel openings, first person narratives, subverting the rules, changing point of view, character psychology and other useful topics.

There is the tortured genius type of artist who cannot bear to converse with mere mortals about his or her creative process. But most writers, I have found, are more down to earth people who aren’t interested in promoting a mystique about themselves, but are genuinely eager to communicate whatever lessons they have learned about how to make their writing work.

Of course, authors also do these gigs merely to pay the rent. But I suspect that, as empathy is a necessary attribute for a good writer, so then good writers naturally incline towards reaching out and helping others along the way. Which brings me back full circle to Miriam Toews and my relief and happiness to discover that I liked the ‘real’ person behind the quirky, funny and soulful prose of All My Puny Sorrows.

Talking of circles, what about the Golden Circle? What about Iceland? Ah yes. That was pretty good too…

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For those interested, details of the retreat can be found here

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Writing as Therapy

I am just emerging from one of those stressful periods in life that come along every so often. One of those periods when you wake up in the mornings with your heart racing and your mind whirring. Days filled with tasks that are both mentally and emotionally draining.

The date of my previous blog shows how I’ve failed to keep up with my posts on here. You might naturally expect that, at a time such as this, I wouldn’t have managed to keep up with my fiction writing either. I wouldn’t have had the time. I wouldn’t have had the inclination. I wouldn’t have had the creative energy. I wouldn’t have been able to muster the concentration. I wouldn’t have had the inspiration.

This expectation, however, would assume two things that aren’t true. One, that external circumstances have to be conducive to writing in order for it to happen. Two, that writing for me is a hobby: something I do to unwind or to occupy myself with when there’s nothing else that requires my attention. For me, writing isn’t like that. Writing is something I need to do, come rain or shine.

It’s true I haven’t been in the right frame of mind to blog for a while. I’ve steered clear of writing that involves any kind of personal reflection, because life itself has foisted enough of that upon me. But, when the chips are down, I’ve found writing fiction to be not just a basic necessity, but positively beneficial to my mental and emotional well being.

This is true for a number of reasons. Like physical exercise, writing focuses the mind on something other than the problems you face. Writing fiction, in particular, focuses the mind on something unreal, which is a wonderful let up for a mind beleaguered by reality.

Writing fiction, like reading, is an escape. It’s a better form of escape than watching TV because it requires a far deeper level of concentration and engagement. It requires, to a degree, a suspension of the conscious mind, or, at least, a conversation between the conscious and the subconscious. If this means that some of the anxieties from your life may leak into your fiction, they must be allowed to do so only in the service of your story.

That is why writing fiction, as opposed to life writing, isn’t therapeutic in terms of catharsis or self-expression. But, in terms of a meditative experience, an imaginative release and an exercise in problem solving, it is brilliantly effective self-medicated therapy.

When I enrolled on my masters degree in creative writing, it was following the most stressful period of my life. At the time I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cope, but attending those weekly lectures and undertaking those writing exercises and workshopping my work and that of my fellow students proved to be an absolute lifeline.

Now that this latest storm has passed, I’m able to undertake a bit of naval gazing and to blog again. It’s a relief to do that. And I’m writing my fiction now without a sense of huddling under a cloud in desperation, but of stretching out in the light. Looking back on the last few weeks, I find myself wondering, not so much how I managed to carry on writing, but how people who don’t write manage to survive.

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