The Wall

IMG_1843So now I’ve hit the wall.

I can’t write.

Up until now, the book I started writing back in March, the one that came to me in the middle of a sleepless night, the one that made me leap out of bed to write it down, the one that showed such promise, has stalled completely.  I don’t know why. It’s like I got to a certain place in the narrative and everything just stopped. So now when I open the document, instead of writing, I sit there staring at the blank screen, getting more and more frustrated and angry with myself and with the book because it won’t behave.

When I can’t write, I paint. I cannot paint to save mine or anybody else’s life.  The thing that’s on my easel right now, I think I’ll call “Haphazard Blobs Attacking a Sea Monster.” It looks like nothing mortal. I don’t know what it looks like. It doesn’t matter, though, because I don’t care about the painting. I just like dabbing paint onto the canvas and making a mess – getting paint on my hands and my clothes, rubbing paint on with my fingers, playing in it. It’s like being a four-year-old again.

(Actually, if you turn the canvas upside down it looks like a school of tiny fish being consumed by a giant pink amoeba.)

That’s the point, though. I am willing to paint badly (and oh boy, do I ever!) I don’t mind messing up a canvas. It doesn’t matter. It’s just for fun. I know if I could adopt this same mindset about my writing, I’d be a lot better off.

The current problem? I have no idea what happens next. I think something needs to blow up or burn down – or maybe blow up and then burn down. I’m afraid to introduce such an element because I’m certain sure doing so will ruin it. Mind you, this is a rough draft – a very rough draft – and the only person I’m telling the story to is myself. Nobody else is going to see it, just like nobody is going to see my awful painting that looks like it was done by someone without opposable thumbs.

Every time I hit the wall I panic. I have to keep reminding myself: be willing to write badly. Be willing to write garbage. Be willing to make a mess. This novel has been problematic since the beginning, starting out first as one kind of story and then slowly morphing into something different. That’s not the problem. I know I can go back and rearrange things, take out and put in, rewrite, revise, edit. I’ve done it so many times before. I can do this. And of course the evil little voice in my head goes Are you sure? Maybe this is as far as you go. Maybe you don’t have anything else and this is as good as it gets. 

The problem is this: in order to get past this current sticky patch, I have to write badly, and I hate that.

It’s hard to be willing to write badly. I want to think that I know what I’m doing, I’ve done it so many times before, hey I’m a veteran of these wars! It is so hard to allow myself to write badly because my ego wants to be the expert. My ego doesn’t need practice, it doesn’t need rehearsal, it doesn’t need to put in the time at the keyboard and make mistakes and have to start all over again. I should be past that now.

Well, I’m not past it. I hate having to write badly. I feel like I’m letting myself down. I don’t want to write a shitty first draft. I want to be first out of the gate and write brilliantly every single time. I’m afraid if I let myself write badly, everything I write from that point on will be crap.

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It’s hard to create anything if you’re afraid of failure. (I’ve failed so many times, you’d think I’d be well-versed in the procedure by now, but no.) Being creative means stepping out on that limb that you don’t think will hold your weight; sometimes it means the limb breaks underneath you and you make a fool of yourself. Sometimes the limb holds, and you can advance a little. Sometimes you reach out for a limb you thought was there, only to find out it isn’t. And I think I’ve tortured this metaphor long enough.

I want this book to be good. I want this book to be read. I want someone to read it and when it’s done, sit back and think, that was a good read. I really enjoyed that.  If I go ahead and finish writing it, there’s a good chance it will be rubbish. It might be the most embarrassingly awful dreck I or anyone else has ever produced.

But if I don’t go ahead and finish writing it, no one will ever read it. So I’ll write badly and I’ll finish it. I can do this. I can.

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The Quality of Light

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The beautiful summer that we had is winding down. The topmost leaves in the mountain ash tree in my backyard are turning yellow. The wind is cooler, more often coming from the north or the east. I have loved the summer. I can feel its end drawing near, but I’m not sad. I’m grateful to this beautiful season for what it’s given me, but I am looking forward to autumn. Autumn is my favorite season of all.

I’m a very visual person. I think in pictures and scenes. I’m acutely interested in the insides of buildings and what rooms look like late in the afternoon when the day’s portion of sun is fading, being withdrawn and gathering reluctantly in the corners.  If someone walked into that room, what would they feel? What might they be thinking? Most importantly, at least to me, what would they be seeing?

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The recreation of Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles in the south of France, as it appears on Airbnb.

If someone were sitting at that table, there, looking out of that window, perhaps gazing upon a little town, or a village square with a well, or waving fields of grain awaiting harvest, what would they feel? I love to watch the clouds being chased across the sky by the insistent autumnal wind: forget summer. I’m here now. 

Certain colors gain strength and poignancy in autumn. A particular shade of blue looks different under bright summer sun than it does in soft September light. The brilliant shades of the trees is astonishing to me: how can these colors be? How can they exist? Well the short answer of course is the breakdown of chlorophyll, but my God, the red and orange and yellow! I can only just restrain myself from lying down in a pile of leaves and rolling around.

I have done this. I am not ashamed.

The quality of autumn light is different. The angle of the sun has shifted and the world is spinning away from warmth, into darkness. There’s a soft veil over everything. The sunshine is diffused. There are longer shadows in the garden. It’s so beautiful. Early in the morning in September, I often feel like I’m walking in a dream, where nothing is  real and your feet don’t quite touch the ground. Whereas summer inspires in me stories that are languid and sleepy and rather louche, autumn suggests wood-paneled rooms lined with books, a fireplace, windows closed against the weather.

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The advent of autumn invites my creative self to turn inward. I find myself contemplating stories set in interior spaces – libraries, archives, antiquarian bookstores, antique shops, creepy old Gothic houses, with or without hidden passageways.  My reading tastes veer towards books like Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale or Daphne DuMaurier’s classic Rebecca. I wrote The Lovely Beast, a steampunk re-imagining of the Dracula/Van Helsing story, as fall was setting in.

Right now I am finishing up a novel that I started back in March. When I say ‘finishing up’ I mean tying up the end of the first draft. The book will almost certainly change between now and its final version. I haven’t decided what I’m going to work on next – there are several options floating around – and maybe I might decide to take a sabbatical, not do any writing. Either way, I have the glorious (I hope!) days of autumn to look forward to, that ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ that Keats spoke of.

P.S. I don’t know if anyone is reading this blog or not. I intended it as a series of ‘letters’ from me to whomever wants to read it, so if you are reading it, I ask that you consider it an ongoing correspondence from me to you.

Unmasking the Medusa

 

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“People do not see you, / They invent you and accuse you.”
― Hélène Cixous, author, The Laugh of the Medusa

 

 

 

I was thinking the other day about how people – myself included – create and inhabit masks they make for themselves. I don’t know if it’s cultural pressure or what, but it’s like we have to have a persona to live in and carry with us through the world, like a turtle shell, like something we use for protection. Maybe we tried to be authentic in the past, and were mocked or shamed for it by people or institutions who didn’t understand. Maybe we disclosed an inconvenient fact and someone didn’t like it. Maybe we tried to speak our truth and stepped on somebody’s toes. Whatever happened, we learned to shut up and play small. We made ourselves a false self, and climbed inside.

It takes a lot of energy to maintain a façade like that. I know, because I did it for years, afraid that who I am, just as I am, wasn’t not good enough. After a while, keeping up a pretense becomes exhausting. You get tired of apologizing for being who you really are; you yearn for authenticity. It becomes too much effort to be what people expect. After a while, you find yourself saying things like “I don’t agree” or “I’m not interested in that” or, you sit in the back of the room at yet another pointless meeting and cough “Bullshit!” and you’re not one bit sorry. You are no longer interested in anyone’s cover story. Narcissists bore the hell out of you. Who are you, really? I don’t want to hear how everybody thinks you’re brilliant or you’re gifted or you’re special or how, when you were born, your grandfather said ‘this child isn’t real’ or some such self-serving nonsense that you tell because you’re trying to convince everyone how speshul you are. The only stories I have time for are the ones I write. Be your authentic self with me – or be somewhere else.

We all create false images of ourselves that we then project onto the world. I’ve done it. For a long time it was like second nature to me. I believed I had to edit myself in order to be accepted by my peers. I had to pretend to be something I wasn’t. I learned to nod and smile, and it plain wore me out. I had to risk being disliked – and, in one particularly vicious episode, thrown under the bus professionally – in order to be myself. Guys, guys! Hey! The emperor is naked!

In order for me to function as a creative person, I have to know my own silence. I have to be comfortable in my own skin, without needing to embroider or embellish who I am. It simply takes far too much energy to maintain a mask. I can’t go along to get along. If the emperor is dancing in the altogether with his ass flapping in the breeze, I’ll point it out. Sorry if that hurts your feeling.

You choose yourself when you choose authenticity. Good writing, honest writing, comes from the truest place inside you. It’s not easy being who you really are, but if you’re serious about your art, it’s necessary. You can’t create from a place of falseness. Nobody speaks clearly through a mask.

It’s up to you.

 

 

 

 

 

Creativity Takes Courage (Or, How I Learned to Love Getting Lost in a Bog)

Henri Matisse is reported to have said “Creativity takes courage.” If so, I was enormously creative this morning. I went out before nine, thinking I’d find somewhere suitable to sit down and work for a while. Alas, Gentle Reader, it was not to be. The path I’d chosen was unfortunately shut off by a bright orange plastic web-looking thingy and I eventually found myself in a local park on the top of a large hill overlooking the city. (Marconi sent the first wireless signal from there a long time ago. This, in case you didn’t know, is a very big deal.)

Absolutely beautiful morning. Hot as Hades. I forgot my hat and so the sun was beating down on my head but I reasoned it was all right, because I would find a nice tranquil spot and I would work there. Some Higher Power must have decided that picnic tables were a sinful extravagance, for there was only a bench, no table, and have you ever tried to write leaning on a wooden seat while sitting on the ground? I don’t recommend it. Besides, the ants were far too forward for my liking, peeking into places that are frankly none of their business. Nosy little bastards.

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There were lots of lovely birds: yellow warblers, house finches, robins…and one gigantic, absolutely majestic raven soaring overhead. After a while the repeating songs began getting on my nerves. I’m what’s commonly known as high-strung and neurotic as hell, and so it took about a dozen choruses of tweep-twiddle-twiddle-twiddle before my nerves were shot. To shout at them would be cruel, and besides, there were people on the next hill over, who would probably have looked askance at That Loony Over There Shouting At Birds.

I need not tell you that I got absolutely nothing done! Well, that’s not entirely true. I got a page and a half written before the pose of Crouching Housewife, Hidden Author became too painful to maintain and I had to give it up. I put away my notebook, slung my bag over my shoulder and followed the path down to the fen, which this time of year is a sea of wild irises, so beautiful. wild_irises

There was nowhere to sit, no bench or table. There was a slightly promising flat rock that ultimately disappointed. I was going to have to relocate. I plunged into the woods with all the fervor of a lifelong virgin launching himself through the front door of a bordello; I got lost. What’s more ridiculous is that I know these paths, have walked them for literally years with dogs both past and current, so how in the flaming hell I could get turned around is anybody’s guess, but I did. It was like one of those dreams where you’re in an unfamiliar landscape, turning down first one path and then another, certain that this time you know where you are. I pushed my way through vegetation up to my armpits, tripped over large stones, stepped in bog, and generally made myself hot, miserable, and very angry. It was ridiculous, I thought. I knew where I was. I could see the village of Quidi Vidi. It was right there.  Yet somehow I was cursed to wander like the Biblical Hebrews, but without Moses or manna.

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Mallard Cottage, in Quidi Vidi village. Once a gift shop, it’s now a very well-regarded restaurant.

After more than an hour stumbling around in a bog, getting slapped in the face by trees and collecting more than my share of snail slime, I gave up. To hell with the path. To hell with finding somewhere to work. I was much too angry to produce anything besides the vilest vitriol. I took an abrupt right turn and crashed through someone’s back garden. I’m sure the sight of me, red-faced and angry, ranting and cursing under my breath, scared the living daylights out of the house’s occupants. I humbly apologize. I’m harmless, really. They even let me out on weekends and national holidays.

I ended my trek by taking the long way round, climbing three flights of incredibly steep stairs set into a hill, and stumbling through what was probably the same damn bog.

And I got nothing done.

I did get myself a pounding headache, though. Next time I will remember my hat. I might even staple it to my head.

 

Rock You Like a Hurricane

There’s a storm coming our way – in fact, it’s already started – with high winds and sideways rain, the tail end of Hurricane Chris. It’s been twirling away just below the island for most of today, but Lola and I did manage to get a walk in this morning.

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I’ve been trying to write something every day now. I’ve been using a self-hypnosis recording at night that seems to be helping me feel confident about my work again. It makes me want to take risks – maybe that’s not the right term…it’s like I’m more willing to see where the work takes me, rather than agonizing over whether it’s any good or not. That’s a big deal for me. I’m a person who doesn’t let go easily. I don’t like to relinquish control, even when logically and intellectually I know there’s no such thing. None of us are in control of anything. Even pursuing the illusion of control is a waste of time and energy. I know this now. I didn’t know it twenty-odd years ago when I published my first novel. I figured if I worked hard enough, pushed myself, really knuckled under and got my nose down to that grindstone… But it’s not a mathematical equation, and you can’t figure it that way. At least, I can’t. I used to think that amount of effort coupled with y amount of good luck would equal staggering literary success, but it doesn’t. Much of the time, success occurs because of factors beyond my control, serendipity, chance meetings, the friend-of-a-friend.

The truth is, most of the real successes I’ve had occurred when I finally agreed for whatever reason to step away and take my hands off it. It has occurred when I’ve been willing to fling myself into the abyss, not something I do lightly. I’m sure you’ve seen that pretty quote about the person who doesn’t want to leap because she’s afraid she’ll fall; someone says, ‘yes, but what about if you fly?’ My cynicism immediately snarks ‘yes, and what about if you splatter messily on the pavement below in a shower of blood and guts?’ Probably because I’m too old to be a wide-eyed naïf and the idea of shiny happy people holding hands sings to my psyche like fingernails on a chalkboard.  Probably because I’ve suffered from clinical depression since I was very young, and that constant, hellish dullness grinding away in my mind has tempered me into a different sort of instrument. Your mileage may vary.

But this book is really starting to take shape now. I have no real outline for it, just a sort of idea of where it will go. I’m letting it unfold organically and find its own way. It’s moved aside a bit from where it started and that’s perfectly fine. That’s how a book shows me it’s real, that it takes on life of its own and charts its own direction.  I’ve learned from hard experience: in order for a book to really work, it has to have juice. It has to have an internal integrity that comes from writing only what I know and feel to be true in my heart of hearts – not trying to write what will sell, or what I think people might want. I have to write something that makes me feel, or I can’t expect my putative readers to engage with it. I have to write. I’ve always had to write. I can’t not write. I’ve tried. It’s horrible.

What’s this book about?

A disgraced former policeman, mourning the recent death of his wife, returns to the coastal Newfoundland fishing village of his childhood to sell his late grandfather’s house. But his grandfather isn’t the only set of old bones he has to deal with: when the corpse of a childhood enemy washes up onshore, he finds himself at the center of a murder investigation – one in which he’s the only suspect. Poor Dafydd Furey (that’s his name) is so shell-shocked he doesn’t know if he’s punched, bored, or shot out of a gun. I understand that feeling very well.

It’s the first book I’ve written where the island itself is a character, an actual entity with moods, usually expressed in weather.

We get a lot of weather here, but my God, I love this place. I’m currently reading Tom Morton’s In Shetland: Tales from the Last Bookshop. Of his adopted island he says “This place I’ve found. I’m heart-lost in love for it” and that’s how I feel about my island.

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This book – I’m now some 66,000 words in – appeared in my mind late one night in March. I had to get out of bed immediately and jot the idea down before I fell asleep and forgot it. (I’m sure you know how that goes.) I sat writing for two hours and finally crawled back to bed when it was nearly daylight. I was only able to sleep then, when I had it out of me and down in print.

I’m trying to write every day, even if I only write a couple of pages. Most days, I can hardly keep up with it. It’s like taking dictation, like watching a movie in my mind. It’s me showing up to do the work. It’s going somewhere different, the beach or a crowded cafe, or the middle of a field listening to the rustling of yellow summer grasses.

In order to create, I have to be fully in the world, awake to everything. I have to stand knee-deep in the river of life (apologies if that metaphor is a bit twee) and let it soak me. That’s the thing, if you want to be a writer, I think. Or if you already know you are one. You have to take it all in, the good and the bad, the ecstatic and the horrible, the love and the torment in equal measure. You have to.

You have to sit among a field of rustling barley (I think that’s barley) and listen to the sound the wind makes, rushing through it…like being very still so you can hear the sea.

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En Plein Air

Writing at beautiful Topsail Beach En Plein Air this morning.

 

Watching the BBC program Escape to the Continent last night with Hubby. The featured couple were looking for a house in the Algarve region of Portugal. I’ve never been to Portugal, although a genetic testing kit Hubby gave me for my 50th birthday confirms that part of me hails from the Iberian Peninsula.

At any rate I wanted to smell the sea air and look over an expanse of blue while I worked. Not precisely Portugal but close enough that I could imagine it. Strange to want to be in Portugal while writing a book set here, on the island, but that’s the way my imagination works. Writing in my journal this morning:

The air outside today is what I imagine the Mediterranean must be like, dry and hot with a persistent breeze. You could almost expect to see fig and olive trees growing outside the window. When I was younger than I am now, certain books used to affect me in a strange way. Reading them, I felt like I’d ingested the story physically, like you would consume a food. It lived in me. Before too long it put out tendrils that wrapped around my insides, and I was part of that story. It became my lived experience. The actual physical world was like a shadow behind it. I lived in the story. The reality of the story, of that universe, overwrote actual reality – if reality was even real, and that’s debatable. I can remember being down Long Shore (n.b: a woods path near Hant’s Harbour, where I grew up) by myself when I was young, maybe 11 or 12. There was something there. Not dangerous, but curious about me…I felt like I might meet it around the next corner. 

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I’ve often felt this presence when I’m alone somewhere. The location doesn’t seem to matter; my engagement with it does. It seems to accompany me throughout my life, for whatever reason. I felt it with me when I was walking in Whitechapel late one October afternoon. The shadows were growing long and I was making my way back to my hotel , down narrow streets little changed since the Victorian era. I’m almost never afraid when I’m alone in an unfamiliar place, unless I have cause to be. On this particular day I’d somehow gotten turned around, and the GPS/satellite maps thingy on my tablet decided to quit. I was alone in a huge city, hungry (low blood sugar always makes me irrational) and scared. I had no idea where I was, or how to get where I needed to go. I noticed a group of people crossing the street and something urged me to go with them, so I did. And there was my hotel, right where I’d left it.

I felt it in Nan’s house, one day when we were going to New Melbourne Sands for a picnic in the camper. I forgot something and had to go back in and get it. Alone in the house, I felt this same benevolent presence in the empty kitchen with its billowing gingham curtains and the humming refrigerator. 

I feel like I want to go to the sea today. Topsail Beach, maybe, with my writing. Something in me wants to feel like I’m somewhere else – the South of France, maybe, or the Algarve. Places I’ve never been except in fictive journeys between the pages of a book. It would be ideal to go among people I don’t know and sit at a cafe table on a beach somewhere. I need a change of scene, and the dust on the fireplace hearth will still be there when I get home…