I love the excuse New Year gives me to make over-ambitious plans. One of these is to work out how to write a decent short story.
You’d think it shouldn’t be too different from writing a novel, but in many ways it’s harder- less forgiving as a medium, anyway. Within a few thousand words, I need to simultaneously create interesting characters and develop a satisfying plot.
Michelle, a friend from a writing group, inspires me. Over two years, I read two short stories aloud, when I thought they were ready for submission. She wrote a fresh story every two weeks. She found an idea and a couple of hours, and produced something. And the more she did that, the better her stories became- better than my edited stuff.
The most helpful book I read in 2015 was Hilary Rettig’s Seven Secrets of the Prolific. She talks of accepting we’re not usually presentient. We don’t know whether something will work or not. But as a rule, those who are prepared to invest time and energy to create, regardless of possible failure, are more successful overall than those who are risk-adverse.
So my other writing goal is to ditch my pride and get better at writing first drafts, without stopping to edit every paragraph. Put things down and give creativity a chance to kick in, before my right brain tells me it’s all wrong and I better give up trying.
Judging from facebook, the world is divided into two types of people: those who love the loss of routine over Christmas, and those who secretly want it back, but feel it would be rude to admit it.
I’m torn. I need the long lies and the time with family. I don’t want to wish them away. But I miss my autonomy. Maybe it’s because whatever I’ve felt about the demands on a stay-at-home mum, I’ve largely been free to organise the order I respond to them. Few people have that luxury, but I’ve got used to it. And now the children are all at school, I’ve become even more spoiled.
Perhaps it’s more about rhythm than routine. There are things my body and brain expect at certain times. They need food, sleep and sanitation, but they miss writing and regular exercise.
I’ve not missed the irony. Christmas, with its sights, smells, tastes, nostalgia and people, is a feast for the imagination as well as the stomach. There are times the rest of the year, especially writing fiction, I feel starved of ideas. At the moment, I’ve scraps of paper and notebooks with them dotted around the house. (Organised people carry the same pad all the time, I know!) I can’t afford much time alone to write, but knowing this, makes me want it more. I’ll just have to be patient, enjoy Christmas for itself, and bank up the enthusiasm and ideas for January. I don’t want to miss the people I love and see too little the rest of the year.
Yesterday, I saw a long facebook status titled 18 things mums hate about school. It was funny and every point resonated with me. No surprise it had been shared over 6000 times by then. Once I’d shared it myself, I could see the author’s bemused reaction to its popularity in the comments underneath. She’s right- she really should check her privacy settings!
To be honest, my first reaction was, how can I expect to be published in print magazines, when this is the quality of a facebook post? My second, less self-centred one was, what a pity she’d posted it on social media first. It would have made a great article and she’d have received full credit and a fee.
But it made me think about the way the internet makes “authors” of so many of us. Those two line statuses we edit several times because we’ve several hundred facebook friends who will have an opinion on them, however fleeting.
I would love to help support our family through writing, but more than that, I want to interact with people through words. For a while, along with my mate, Sam, I provided the run reports for my local parkrun. It’s a free event. We did it as volunteers and to be honest, after a few months, it was hard to find original things to say about a 5k that generally went well and had a similar set of people every week. But I’d been writing a novel for six years at his point, unsure who would ever see it. Now I’d been asked to upload 300+ words every fortnight that I knew a growing number of people would definitely read. It was the first time I properly felt the pull of blogging.
I need to create something. I feel this urge more these days. It’s quite nice, as long as I have a project on hand. Wonderful when I’m fresh and that project involves writing.
But I’m exhausted. It’s the last day of term. I’m up to date with my shopping. (For once, I remembered to buy for my husband.) The house is as decorated as it’s going to get- bar some fairy lights on the stairs. And the children are coming home for the holidays. So it’s a whoozy, almost pleasant sort of tiredness. But I’m too tired to write.
I need to do something. I’ve some bunting to make, a nice simple task as I’ve done it before. It would be satisfying to see the result. But my sewing machine is broken.
An archeological survey of my wardrobe would probably unearth some knitting for smaller children than I have now.
It’s OK. By the time this is published it will be school pick up. I’ll think about making biscuits with the children. And after that, I’ll think about the fighting and the mess to tidy up, and realise my creative urge isn’t that strong. If I sit down with a coffee, it’ll probably go away.
When I’m getting carried away, I describe IKEA as a design museum where the exhibits are on sale. Several friends, with whom I otherwise have a lot in common, hate the place. They find the year-round commercialism and endless mazes of false walls connected by travelators oppressive.
I don’t need to buy anything to find inspiration. Perhaps it’s the thought of more storage space and therefore a relatively decluttered home that makes me feel creative. I think however, it’s the creativity involved in the business and the ability of the designers to think outside the box: 3-tray trollies that swivel to manoeuvre between their cafe tables; candlesticks that turn over to become tea light holders; the focus on small-space living rather than aspiration.
If I was a better runner, I’d cross-train- in less fancy terms, add a different sport into my weekly routine. I think as a writer, it’s good to look at other people’s ideas, in whatever medium they’re expressed.
Ikea mirror Hope and Glory
Somehow I came out of school with the notion that I could do everything I wanted all at once and be wildly successful at it. Of course, back then, I measured success by the qualifications I earned and what other people thought of me.
I’m a lot older, and a little wiser, but I still regularly fall into the same trap of trying to do everything very well. Inevitably, I fail and feel much worse for it. When I’m assessing my day and there’s washing all over the sofa, I forget about the writing I’ve done. And vice versa.
There’s always the difficulty of prioritisation. It’s hard to assess the value of doing something with uncertain outcome. My husband encourages my writing ambitions, but day to day, tidying the kitchen has more immediate and discernable impact for good on the family.
But after eight years of regular writing, I have only just realised I tend to be more creative the less pressure I’ve put on myself.
I had a surprisingly satisfying day, yesterday. And it had to do with the limitations of a small son off school, and realising I had a week to get prepared for the holidays. Of course, because I wasn’t demanding my brain came up with ideas immediately, and because it wasn’t clogged up with housework-related guilt, it did.
I might need to do more cleaning. For the good of my writing
I tell myself this is what it’s like setting up your own business. Whatever your line, it’s always slow at first, until people get to know you. Some of the ideas I’ve sent may well be still accepted, but editors will take time to decide on the content of their next issue. And I’m very fortunate to have had a successful pitch already.
I find the beginning of the week hardest. I wonder if I should have an official brainstorming session on Mondays. But it’s so easy to feel daunted by the blank piece of paper. When I had my first commision, with no real deadline, I found myself dawdling, aware it wouldn’t be as pleasant waiting for the next.
It’s almost certainly about confidence. As soon as I’ve had one workable idea, I start to have others. And often it’s not even the idea I need, just a strategy for how to find my market for a particular piece.
So, my current plan is to continue keeping ideas in a file, pulling them out towards the end of the week and working out a strategy for marketing at least one of them. I’ll leave the actual writing for Monday, so I know where I’m going to start after the weekend.