What does a blogger say when nothing in particular has happened all week?
Am I supposed to conjure up two or three paragraphs of five hundred or so boring words of nothing? Well, I’m not going to.
Things did happen, of course. I’ve invigilated exams and taught two web design classes, attended my Christian Studies class, and, most important of all, my son and girlfriend have been here this weekend and today my husband directed all the music for three services at St Edmundsbury Cathedral. But not writing things.
If other people keep telling you that something’s gobsmackingly amazing, what’s your reaction? Me, I don’t respond well to hype and end to want to debunk whatever it is. However, last weekend I went to the Association of Christian Writers’ Weekend at Scargill House, Yorkshire, which all my ACW writer friends said was… er… gobsmackingly amazing… and I can report, Dear Reader, that it was everything everybody said it was.
Before I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect from the Scargill weekend. The theme was ‘Dodging the Gatekeepers’ and it was led by Adrian and Bridget Plass, well-known as inspirational speakers. Theologian and poet, Andrew Knowles, was also presenting, a lovely, funny, self-deprecating former canon theological of Chelmsford Cathedral, wearing shorts and t-shirt. The ‘Gatekeepers’, I learned, are people and things which discourage us from writing, the unacknowledged audience whom we are forever trying to please: for instance, parents, siblings, spouses, teachers, members of your writing group. To dodge these Gatekeepers, according to Adrian Plass, we have to acknowledge ‘the elephant in the living room’ and not allow them to set boundaries for us, particularly boundaries of respectability, whereby we feel safe and can deliver half-truths or half-solutions. We must be true to ourselves. We are asked if we would go to the pub with Jesus if he invited us and, tongue in cheek, told a story about a straitlaced lady from a strict church who refused because she didn’t drink alcohol. Everything had a Christian emphasis, so I suppose the weekend wouldn’t appeal to everyone.
It wasn’t just the presentations and writing exercises, of course, that made the weekend. Do want to know about the brooding Yorkshire Dales outside? About the friends I spent time with and the new friends I made? About the walk we took in the fells on Saturday afternoon? Nightly story-time with story-teller, Amy Robinson. Or how I knitted (part of) a square for the neo-natal unit at Bradford Infirmary (really addictive, Dear Reader)? Never have I spent so much time talking to writers about writers. They even made me feel like a proper writer.
“How unspeakably lucky I am to possess you. I shall think of you, you, you and nothing else, tomorrow, next day, and Sunday and Monday, and every day and hour and moment!”*
Does this do anything for you? Me, neither. Nor did do anything for Vita Sackville-West, to whom it was written. The writer was Vita’s lover, Rosamund Grosvenor, whom she dumped almost immediately afterwards.
For me, writing emotion is the most difficult thing. (Maybe this is the reason why I have had no success in womag writing.) According to Robert Plutchik’s theory, there are seven emotions: fear; anger; sadness; joy; disgust; surprise; trust; anticipation. Aristotle listed some different ones, so did Darwin. The writer feeling emotion as he/she is writing is not enough to make the reader feel, because the reader isn’t the writer and is not touched off by the same things. So, you go through the motions of using all the senses (sight, sound, feel, smell and taste). You use tropes. You extrapolate from your own experience. …And it still falls flat. What about this, though?
“I arrived her yesterday [Duntreath Castle]… Do you remember the peacocks stalking round the house in the small hours of the morning uttering penetrating but unmusical cries, the gorgeous flaming sunsets that set the hills a-kindling for all the world like cabuchon rubies? Do you remember the staid and stolid girl – a remote connection of mine – whose birthday we celebrated at a place called Lennox Castle?…”*
Do you feel the energy? Do you feel the rhythm as every sentence is begun with the words ‘Do you remember…’? The writer is rapping out quick rhythmical questions, each one starting with the words ‘Do you remember…’ She also is making a pitch for Vita, but, not bothering with abstract protestations of love, she is setting out challenges, by calling up specific shared memories. This is Violet Keppel, who will replace Rosamund in Vita’s affections.
Emotion is a funny thing. I’m furious that a sixteen-year-old posh girl, at the beginning of the twentieth century, can write emotion better than I.
So what advice can you give me?
*From ‘A Portrait of a Marriage’, by Nigel Nicolson (George Weidenfield and Nicolson Limited, 1973)
We IWSG members are asked to post on our blogs on the first Wednesday of every month, about our doubts, the fears we have conquered, our struggles and triumphs, offering words of encouragement for fellow-writers who might be struggling. We also visit others in the group – hence the Twitter handle and hashtag in the tags to this blog post.
The biggest fear I have conquered this month is a very practical one: how to travel from my home, deep in the Essex countryside, to the ACW Writers Retreat in the depths of the Yorkshire countryside. Neither I, nor my ancient Ford Ka, could face the 250 mile drive. Then, in the middle of May, my wonderful friend, Fiona, from Leeds offered me a lift from Leeds to the retreat house. (Thank you so much, Fiona.) I therefore booked a train from Peterborough to Leeds, but the plan to do the two-hour drive from home to Peterborough and to park my ancient banger at Peterborough station for two nights was starting to appear more and more expensive and less and less workable. However, today, my husband announced that he is visiting a musician friend in Bury St Edmunds on the day I’m travelling. So he’s driving me to Bury (an hour’s drive, in his much better car), from where I can catch a connecting train to Peterborough. The ACW Retreat’s a week on Friday, 16 June. Next month, I’ll tell you how it went. For the first time since booking it, I’m really looking forward to it.
This month we IWSG-ers are also asked Did you ever say “I quit”? If so, what happened to make you come back to writing? My answer is Yes, twice. First, a long time ago, when I rattled off a very hurried novel, in the space of six months, and entered it for a national and very prestigious prize. When the typed manuscript plopped back on my doormat after less than a week, on my husband’s birthday, I howled, but now I’m so pleased it got rejected, because, when I think about what I wrote and how I wrote it, I squirm. The second occasion was when I wrote about a local holiday club, where I was helping. When my article published in the local rag, about one sentence of mine was used and the rest, which the staff writer supplied, was inaccurate and misleading. The holiday club leader had to apologise to the other helpers.
What got me back? After the passage of quite a bit of time, the stories that kept going round and round in my bed, and needed to be put into words. One of the deals I have made with myself in the last few years is that I will never quit again.
I’m going to make a confession. I’m a political animal.
The #LondonBridge terrorist attack last night has overset me even more than the Manchester incident two weeks ago. The cumulative effect of three incidents, I think. Unable to sleep last night, my brain is all mush. At five in the morning, I was full of outrage and hurt and at breakfast-time I could hardly put together a Facebook message to my son (who lives in Deptford). And, no, I had no real reason to be worried about him, but you do, don’t you? However, during the course of the day, I’ve been to church and done ordinary everyday things like cooking and putting up sticks for my runner beans. Practical tasks help. Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this.
I read a newspaper every day and I have political opinions.. Many of my stories, and most of my putative novels, have had a political slant. I’m calling them ‘historical’ because they relate to times gone by, although they are not really, as the official definition of historical fiction requires that fifty-plus years of water must have passed under the bridge. Some feature very recent events, like Tomatoes and Their Role in Brexit, my latest story on Alfie Dog Fiction. For each work, I’ve tried to achieve historical accuracy and reflect the thoughts and opinions of the times, also factors like weather. Do you remember how it rained cats and dogs in the lead-up to the EU Referendum last year?
I know writers who write to comfort themselves, to work themselves through bad periods in their lives. Many have written their best work whilst under intense stress – the World War 1 poets, for instance – but I can’t do it. I need a little time in which to reflect and consolidate, to deal with the emotion.
I’m trying very hard to carry on, as per the previous post. It’s hard. But right now I’m watching the News on television and hearing about the people who were there have had to deal with. I shall carry on. I shall write.
Yesterday (Sunday, 28 May 2017) I had a story (‘Tomatoes and Their Part in Brexit’) published on Alfie Dog Fiction. Don’t you just hate people who start off blog posts like this? I’ll move on… straightaway… although, you’ve got to admit that, in my case, this sort of thing is rare.
I don’t have much to say writing-wise. Last week, for all of us in the UK, has been Manchester week. My connection with the city is that I was at university in Manchester in the 1970s, about a mile from Victoria Station, (below the site of the Arena where the terrorist attack happened). I recognise many of the placenames mentioned in the News: Deansgate, St Ann’s Square, Didsbury, Whalley Range. I lived in Fallowfield, where the bomber had his bomb-making factory. I have good memories of Manchester.
Although I’m hurt and angry, I was not so poleaxed by the Manchester bombing that I was unable to do anything else last week. I went to work. It’s high season for exams, so I was invigilating GCSE, Functional Skills and every sort of vocational qualification. On Tuesday, I took part in, and minuted, a PCC (Parochial Church Council) meeting. Yesterday, on Sunday, we had an amazing day, attending my granddaughter’s Christening, with friends and family. Today, I replanted my tomato plants and sewed more seeds – lettuce, radish, marigolds, poppies, echinacea. The weather has been glorious, hot for the first time this year. I got on with life, ordinary things, the insignificant things. Or are they insignificant?
We’re all fed up with seeing ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ on mugs, tea towels, t-shirts and everything else, but that’s what people in Manchester are doing, with enormous dignity, showing love, bravery and solidarity. Actually, I didn’t expect anything else. We’ve had terrorists in the UK before. In July 2005, on the occasion of the Seven/Seven attacks, my husband rang me at work at quarter to nine in the morning, saying, “I’m okay.” “Yes, darling. Why wouldn’t you be, darling,” I replied, not knowing the news. A few minutes later, ambulances, sirens shrieking, would charge out of Colchester, down the A12 to London. A decade previously, we had the IRA, and before that, the Blitz.
Our hospitality has been abused. We believe in democracy, freedom of speech and thought, fairness and supporting people who are down on their luck. We believe that primary school girls should be allowed to go to a gig to hero-worship a big girl. Keep calm and carry on suddenly has real meaning. Keep calm and carry on writing what we believe in, because we live in a liberal democracy and we can.
Many writers have other careers, often working in demanding and responsible job roles and write in the evenings and weekends, but this didn’t work for me. I couldn’t summon up the time or energy to when I was in full-time work (about two years ago). I was a college lecturer, so my supposedly free time, at home, was taken up with lesson preparation and marking. I know of others, who used to write, but now don’t, because they have been subsumed into their day jobs.
So what do you do? It’s significant that many don’t start submitting and publishing until their middle years. Some retire early and live off their pensions. But, what if you’re too young to retire or your pension isn’t going to keep you in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed?
You can attempt to do your career-type job part-time. I tried, Dear Reader, I tried. To an extent, I’m still trying, but it’s difficult. You’ve heard of mission-creep? There’s also job-creep, where you’re so used to a job role taking over your whole life when working full-time that it still does, even when you’re part-time or sessional. In my case, I was spending (supposedly) writing time preparing lessons, marking them, attending meetings that were only tangentially relevant to me and also staff development (which I didn’t need). What a writer needs is a jobby job, where you turn up, do the work, then go home and write. Here are a few suggestions:
Learning support assistant (or teaching assistant)
Apply to any local school or college. You commit to as many or as few hours as you wish. You sit with, and support, your students in class, then go home when they do. There may be a few meetings and your line manager may try to get you to take a qualification, but most schools and colleges are desperate for LSPs, with or without pieces of paper. I haven’t worked in this role myself, but I’ve worked closely with many LSPs who write, paint, play music and just do family life.
Apply to local schools, colleges and universities. You turn up half an hour before the exam to set up the room, and you leave about five minutes after it finishes. End of. Again, you commit to as much or as little as you wish. The only drawback is that it’s seasonal work (very busy in May and June), but not as much as you think, as there are vocational and Functional Skills exams taking place almost all year. You will be welcomed with open arms, as more and more qualifications involve exams, so more invigilators are required. I’m doing this now, about three days a week – at the moment.
One of the advantages of living in a democracy! Obviously, these sort of posts only become available at election time (about once, or twice a year in the UK), but the pay is excellent and a useful top up to other sources of income. Poll clerks and Presiding Officers have a long day (fifteen hours), often sitting doing nothing for long periods, but counting assistants could be through in two or three hours (late at night) or be still counting after twelve hours (in the event of a recount). I’m being a Poll Clerk again, at the General Election on 8 June.
Again it’s stipulated hours, working when you’re working and otherwise out the building. I haven’t done this for a long time.
I know of at least one successful writer whose day job is cleaning.
Most of us writers, being university educated, feel entitled to a professional role, which takes time and emotional energy. Do you want to write or have a career? Or… have you had your career and is it now time to write?
As I’m fed up looking for photos online, I’ve done my own drawings and scanned. I’m no artist. I hope they will do!