story: the hidden mother

When my mother goes to work on Saturday mornings, I open all the drawers in her nightstand. I crawl on my belly under her bed, and stand on a chair to pull down boxes from the top of her wardrobe. Inside the boxes are letters and tickets and pictures that I have seen a hundred times before. The boxes smell of beaches, hostels, moisturiser, tobacco, perfume.

I search everywhere in her room and never find anything. But one morning, she must have forgotten to hide it, because I find her secret past in the chest of drawers. It looks just like a pebble, but is much heavier than a pebble, and warm to the touch. I want to bring it up to my face and smell it, to taste it with the tip of my tongue. But instead I place the pebble back in the drawer, and tidy the room, so it looks like nothing ever happened.

love medicine

I am lurgified. My head feels like it has been stuffed with bees. In case you are not sure, this is a bad thing. Please feel sorry for me.

Anyway. On with the blogathon.

Recently I read Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. It is beautifully written. Her characters are so vividly realised that you can see them, hear them speak. They walk off the page and sit down next to you, telling their stories.  Not only that, but their homes, the towns in which they live, the shape of the reservations, are made utterly concrete and real through Erdrich’s prose.

It made me think about how good writers are detailed and authentic in their settings. I think setting is the most difficult thing for many writers to master. If you do not come from an interesting place, a strong culture, a turbulent history, how do you create deep, realistic settings in your stories?

I am pretty sure that this is one problem that drives many writers to fantasy and science fiction. Writing fantastical worlds is easier than making the truth of how we live now come to life on the page. Not that there is anything wrong with fantastic or futuristic settings – as long as they are well rendered (honest, plausible, detailed), they are a vital element of good storytelling. But isn’t it a little bit easier, when you can draw your own map of your own world?

I’ve travelled a little bit and lived in a few different places, and whilst that definitely feeds the imagination, there is also a lack of depth in my knowledge of places. I currently live in a city that is rather uninspiring to me, although I happen to know it extremely well. The ideal is probably to live in a place that you know deeply and which you also find inspiring. I think writers in such circumstances are lucky indeed!

The issue of setting comes up in my writing all the time, and it is what I struggle with probably more than any other aspect of my writing at present. Do you struggle with setting, or does it come easily to you? Which writers do you think handle setting well? And do you think I should move to another city in order to improve my writing?

uninspired

I suspect I might be succumbing to the lurgy that has been going around here for the past two weeks. I’ve done my best to avoid it but a lot of sick people have been breathing near me recently, coughing without putting their hands over their mouths, sneezing and not immediately rubbing everything down with alcohol wipes or better yet, bunging everything they’ve touched in one of those sterilising machines you see at the dentist’s surgery. They clearly want to infect me.

This may explain the general lack of inspiration I feel at the moment. I know, I know. We writers are not supposed to need inspiration. We have to sit here, through the pain and boredom of having no ideas and nothing to say, just so we can say we paid our dues. And sometimes, just sitting there, just working, is enough to get you back into the flow. But other times, it really isn’t. It’s putting words on a page, then looking back and thinking, jeez. I am really bad at this.

Well, that’s what the past couple of days have been like for me, writing-wise.  All I can hope for is that the lurgy passes swiftly, or alternatively, that it wreaks havoc on me, sending me into a fever in which I hallucinate wildly and creatively…  and maybe travel through time or to another dimension. I quite like that feeling you get when you’re ill, of being in another world. Not that I want to be ill. I just want to be a better writer.

the truth about cats and dogs

Blogging is a steep learning curve. Now I know never to slight cats in public again. They have their defenders. More surprisingly (to me), they have actual haters. I felt a bit embarrassed that people assumed I was a cat hater, when all I’d said was that cats are evil. Which is hardly contentious at all, is it?

Anyway, let me put the record straight. The truth about cats and dogs is that I like both types of creatures very much. I do not, however, like guinea pigs or hamsters. So feel free to despise them if you wish.

 

the daily george

I’ve decided that it would be a cool challenge for me to blog every day between now and the end of the year. The aim is to blog about what I’m writing and reading, of course – but inevitably there will be detours into dog-walking, alcohol, work and other adventures. I can’t help it. Be patient with me – I am finding my blogging feet.

Yesterday when walking the dog, I saw a cat sitting halfway up a tree. I don’t think it was stuck. It seemed to be perched there, trying to work out what the hell to do next. Luckily the dog didn’t notice it, and therefore did not try to chase it down and destroy it with loving chews. I hope that it has found its way home now.

It made me wonder: what is the best pet for a writer? Most writers I talk to have cats. They love their cats, post pictures of their cats making allegedly funny faces, ascribe to their cats all sorts of mysterious intelligence and clearly love them a lot. In fact, it’s tempting to believe that without a cat, you will never be a real writer.

Now, I’ve got nothing against cats. Oh, apart from their inherent EVIL, that is. (Torturing birds, biting the heads off rabbits, looking snooty…) But I think that a dog is the perfect pet for a writer. They are intelligent, peaceful, playful, always willing to listen, and they get you out of the house on a regular basis. This is important: writers who stay indoors all day long and don’t take long, leafy perambulations end up starved of inspiration. We need to go outside. A lot. Dogs make this happen.

Didn’t get as far as I wanted to yesterday with the new short story, so I’m going to turn off the internet and try to finish a first draft today. In the meantime, you can argue about whether cats or dogs are the best pets. (Clue: the answer is ‘dogs’.)

a confession

I don’t know how to tell you this, but… I’m not writing a novel.

I know, I know. I’ve led you on terribly.

The truth is, I’m writing THREE novels.

I don’t know how I got into this mess. First, it was just the one novel, and I was totally devoted to it, but halfway through I got this feeling I just couldn’t ignore, and I had to go off and write something else. That novel, I finished the first draft of. But as soon as I had finished it, I started drafting out an idea for a totally different novel, and now that one has seized my imagination fully.

I’ve been such a fool!

When I write short stories, I usually have at least five or six stories on the go at once, each in a different stage of development. So I suppose I’m doing the same thing with these novels. IT IS SCARIER WITH NOVELS. Three novels = a hell of a lot of work. I keep trying to make myself choose between them, but that leads to despair and deep confusion. I think I have to write them all.

Somehow.

Meanwhile, I have decided to spend the day writing something completely different – a new short story. I have no ideas or inspiration for it, but I believe that if I sit quietly at my desk for long enough, the story will come to me. Let’s hope so, anyway.

writing is rewriting

So I plucked up courage and read the first draft. It was everything I expected it to be: sloppy, solipsistic, boring. But after reading it, I wrote a list of everything I liked about it, and there were FIVE WHOLE THINGS! So much of the story became clearer to me as I read, particularly towards the end. I realised that there were layers and layers to this story.

I also realised that it’s the kind of story that, if it is not done brilliantly, will be dreadful. It is difficult material and I am terrified of fucking it up.

But I’m working on the second draft, nonetheless.  Two thousand words today. Having the basic story already worked out, more or less, allows me to have a much more interesting time with the writing.

I hope that I can catch up with my short story writing soon, too. Novels are great but very time consuming.

the fear

I’ve got the fear.

It’s half-term next week, and it’s about two months since I finished the first draft of my novel. A good time to start editing and revising. That was the plan, anyway.

So this morning I printed out a paper copy, with the intention of reading it through once and taking it in. No notes, no criticism, just see what’s there and how I feel about it.  It was quite satisfying to see the big wodge of paper  sitting on top of the printer. I felt a little bit proud.

But when I went to pick it up, to take it in my hands and start reading – I couldn’t. I sat there, staring at it, trying not to read any of the words on the page. I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Part of a sentence: “…clattering out of slots…”. Awful words. Terrible. This whole thing is a mistake, I thought. Abandon ship!

At some point I am going to have to gather up my courage and actually read the damn thing. Writing is such a head-fuck sometimes.

everyone: shut up

On the bus this morning, I sat next to a woman who was reading one of those women’s magazines that say things like ‘HAVE SEX!!!!!!’ in giant orange letters across the front cover, alongside a picture of a minor celebrity wearing an outfit made of dishcloths.

She (the woman on the bus, not the dishcloth lady) had the magazine open at a double page spread, which I could not help noticing because of the frankly ridiculous title: ‘We ask 40 men one question: WHAT SHOULD WOMEN BE BANNED FROM SAYING?’

You think I’m joking, don’t you? I hope you think I’m joking. I’m not joking.

I have got pretty damn good reading-over-the-shoulder skills, but the answers from said forty men were so depressingly awful that I gave up after only a few. Save yourself the brain-rinse, I thought. Sadly, however, I did manage to read that women should be banned from talking about: their friends, their ex-boyfriends, their hair, clothes, beauty in general, celebrities, and sports. Oh and also,  we shouldn’t make ‘a big deal’ out of things.

“I hate it when they make a mountain out a molehill,” one fellow said.  “Stop moaning and get on with making my dinner. I’ll tell you whether something’s important or not,” he did not actually add, but I’m almost certain that’s what he was thinking. I could tell by the misogynist glint in his piggy little eye.

Having not read the whole double-page extravaganza of patronising, women-are-so-annoying chat, I can’t say for certain, but I imagine that other topics that may offend masculine sensibilities could be: work, politics, television, food, housework, and of course women’s rights. Better to stick to the safe side, and when males are lurking, limit your conversation to how freaking great men are! Better still, just be quiet.

There have been several studies which suggest that women’s IQ and self-esteem are significantly lower after having read a women’s magazine. No wonder, if they are all full of this sort of crap. I don’t read these mags myself – I’d rather read a book, or a short story. Actually, scratch that. I’d rather disembowel myself with a teaspoon than read any more of that rubbish.

Who’s with me?

 

your dreams and what they mean

Last night I dreamt about apostrophes. I was writing sentences without apostrophes, so that my students could rewrite them with apostrophes and… well, that’s about it, really.

I guess this dream means I’ve either got serious problems (possibly a punctuation-based meltdown in the near future?), or no problems at all whatsoever. My subconscious mind is apparently free of the usual nagging worries about the overwhelming futility of human existence and the urge towards evil that lurks inside all human hearts.  For obvious reasons, this disturbs me.

So, as always in times of doubt, I turned to a dictionary. There are several dream dictionaries online, but they are rubbish compared to the brilliant ‘Your Dreams and What They Mean’ by Nerys Lee. I found this gem in a charity shop somewhere, many years ago, and I’ve kept it with me ever since. Not only does it have a gorgeously suggestive cover illustration (The Dream, by Henri Rousseau), but inside it has all sorts of information that I have never read anywhere else, from a brief description of the history of dreaming, to advice on how to deal with a psychic or incubus attack whilst asleep.*

Amazingly, there is no entry for ‘apostrophe’, ‘comma’, or for ‘punctuation’ in general. However, I did find out that a rhinoceros is traditionally a sex symbol, a whale is symbolic of the feminine self (“the womb of mother nature”), and that a jay is a messenger from the dead.

Perhaps you already knew.

Well. Even apostrophe dreams are quite interesting when looked at from a certain angle. Indeed,  I get many of my best ideas from dreams, and from dream books.  I already wrote a story called ‘Your dreams and what they mean’ (It is here) and now I’m scouring this fantastic book again to see if inspiration strikes.  I am somewhat tempted to write an epic poem about a rhinoceros and a whale. Watch this space.

 

*In this section of the book, I just found a small yellow moth, dried and pressed into the pages.