everybody needs good neighbours

In one of the more hilarious moments of my life, I recently discovered that I am living underneath a troupe of Australian acrobats. I found this out when I went upstairs to politely enquire about the tremendous stamping/thumping/crash-bang-walloping noises they were making. WHAT ARE YOU, GIANTS? ARE YOU SUMO-WRESTLERS? ARE YOU JUST THROWING EACH OTHER AROUND THE ROOM? (I ever-so-politely asked.)

Actually yes, they said. The last one.

After I stopped laughing, they gave me a couple of free tickets to their show, so this afternoon a friend and I went along to see it. I knew it would be good, because acrobats and circuses are always thrilling. We sat right at the front, crowded around the few square metres of performance space.

“It’s audience participation,” I joked to my friend. “Can you remember how to do a forward roll?”

The acrobats started with a bit of fun skipping-and-stripping, but soon got into the serious business of DEFYING GRAVITY. They held each other in the air, balancing on hands, heads, shoulders. They climbed up each other’s bodies to reach the ceiling. I had my hands over my mouth most of the time, thinking there was no way I could be seeing what I was seeing.

In one particularly mesmerising section, two of the guys balanced on one another, whilst the sole female acrobat stepped and climbed over them. The game was that she couldn’t touch the ground. Wherever she stepped, there had to be a hand or a thigh or a head or something to hold her off the floor. This was a beautiful piece which not only showed the strength and coordination of these athletes, but also the depth of their connection to one another. There was something very humane and touching in seeing them move almost like one extraordinary body.

The most incredible piece, however, was the finale, in which the guys literally threw the woman around the space in a sequence that became ever more impossibly wonderful. She leapt from their hands, spiraling through the air, to land on other hands. She flew like a bird. There was always an edge of danger, a sense that they might just drop her (but of course they never did).  Afterwards, my friend and I both had the same thought – how many times must they have flung her off into empty space before they perfected this routine? And how crazily talented she was, how focused, and how strong.

I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like this before. Having said that, whilst they were doing an intense bout of backflips, I did think to myself that I’d heard something like this before. I’m pretty sure they do that in their living room. It would explain a lot. Of course, my first (proud) words to my friend upon leaving were, “They’re my neighbours, you know.”

If you’re in Edinburgh, go and see them! The show is called ‘Gravity and Other Myths’ and is on every day at the Gilded Balloon (Teviot).

(And yes, before anyone shouts at me, I *am* supposed to be writing a novel and I *will* get right back to it, this second. Jeez.)

how to paint a dead man, by sarah hall

Everything that Sarah Hall writes is luminous with genius. Her fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, concerns the intertwining lives of four people, disconnected by place and time. Their stories take place adjacent to one another, are intimately connected, but never share the same temporal geography. For all its vibrancy and currency, its earthy people and gripping stories, this book is essentially a meditation on the nature of art. There is an exuberant and joyful celebration of the inner life of the artist, a basking in the mysteries, a revelling in beauty. It is a book full of love and loving, not at all cynical, alive with feeling.

There is something magical, too, in the way that Sarah Hall traces chains of coincidence and synchronicity: connections that are subtle, too oblique to be noticed, but which exert their power nonetheless on each of the characters’ lives. The people in this book are defiantly, irresistibly alive. Their deaths are tragedies, and yet, as the clever structure of the novel suggests, their deaths are not  the end of them. In the perspective of the novel, art is life, and art survives death.

Hall’s writing in her first novel, Haweswater, put me very much in mind of Alan Garner and, sometimes, Ted Hughes. She understands the landscape intimately, physically, historically, and her people in Haweswater seem to rise out of the land, seem to be hewn from rock themselves. How to Paint a Dead Man is a more polished novel, more sure-footed and wider-ranging, but it still has that same organic, natural magic. There is something wildly exciting about writing that is so confident, so daring, so unafraid of its own themes and emotions. If you want a novel that makes you feel brave about writing, I recommend this one.

the opposite problem

I’ve neglected this blog a lot recently, and I’m not quite sure why. I enjoy writing posts here and talking to all of you who comment here and on facebook and elsewhere.  I think sometimes I just don’t really want to do the things that I enjoy doing, including writing. Sometimes I just want to feel the way I feel when I don’t do those things. It’s a different way of relating to the world.

Perhaps it is simply that I have grown comfortable with being alone, not really sharing much with others. Many people I know are deathly afraid of their loneliness. But I have relaxed into it as I’ve gotten older, and I have the opposite problem these days, that I sometimes fear connection with others. For me, it is so terribly painful to be misunderstood, to not be known. I guess that is a kind of loneliness, too, now that I think about it.

Of course I like to think that my inner life is more real and full of depth and meaning than any interaction with others.  You have to think like that in order to become a writer, and being a writer, you have to talk about it as though it makes you somehow special, when perhaps any introvert will feel the same way. It becomes more comfortable to be alone, to try to contain yourself and all your worlds inside your own body.

I think that when a way of being becomes safe and comfortable, it is time to change. Perhaps even to destroy, annihilate, devastate and abandon! If not, we get stuck in a ‘safe place’ with our writing, and we fail. We are too scared to throw it all out and start again. But creativity is always yin/yanging with destruction. True artistry does not spring from balanced contentment, but is the phoenix that is born from the flames as the old world burns to ashes. I’d really love to write that sentence in a less pretentious way, but there it is, that’s exactly what I want to say right now. Change or die, people. Change or die.


when we talk about love

Sometimes I put so much pressure on myself to WRITE MORE! WRITE FASTER! WRITE BETTER! SELL STUFF! BE THE BEST WRITER EVER IN THE HISTORY OF WRITING! that I completely forget why I started writing in the first place. And that’s a shame, because it’s a really good reason, and probably it’s the only decent reason for ever doing anything at all. I write because I truly love writing.

I don’t love it all the time. Sometimes I actually hate it. There have been times when I’ve thought about just not doing it anymore. And I have other reasons for writing too, to do with survival and escapism and dealing with shit that I don’t know how else to deal with. But I must keep remembering that somewhere underneath all this anxiety and madness, there is love.

Recently I have felt a resurgence of joy in my writing. I think that it has come from approaching my work more honestly, from finding the voice of the novel I am writing, and from allowing myself to focus on the parts of writing that I’m good at.

I’m good at language – making beautiful sentences. I like to spend a long time choosing the right words. My best stories come from images and fragments of sentences, from scraps of emotions and memories and ideas. It takes me a long time to dig around those fragments and find actual people and stories and plots. Plots? I don’t love them. I don’t love working out a sequence of events. I don’t love thinking about how one thing should follow another, or how to get from A to B in my stories. Any time I approach a story from the perspective of  what actually happens, I kill it stone dead, because plotting is terribly, horribly boring to me. It feels artificial. Feels like I’m making it up.

The way I like to write is to build a story from the words. I have an initial inspiration – an image, or a strange sensation – and I dig at it and pick at it until it starts bleeding. Sometimes my stories trail away into nothingness, and sometimes my stories make no sense, because the plots don’t work. But sometimes, the plot grows organically from the words, so I hardly have to think about it. Sometimes the story is there, contained in that fragment of an image or idea, and you can slowly, carefully, tease it out.

That is the kind of writing I love to do. I wish all my writing was like that, and maybe it can be. It only works, though, if I blank out all thoughts of success or failure, all comparisons to other books and writers, all comparisons to my own previous writing. It takes patience to let the story grow from almost nothing. It takes courage, too. The temptation is to invent a brilliant plot and start writing straight away, and it’s hard to just sit with something for a long time until it becomes real. I have a story I’m thinking about at the moment that I have been sitting on for five years. Like an egg. I think it is about ready to hatch, but I’ve thought that before and been wrong.

I think maybe love comes with taking the time you need to do things right.

an end and a beginning

And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

T.S.Eliot, Little Gidding

Something I learned about writing this week is that when I write what I love to write, it becomes a much greater and more beautiful thing to do. (Whether it is more beautiful to read is another matter!)

I am – I have come to know – the sort of writer who can spend hours over one sentence, putting everything into balance. T.S. Eliot’s notion of the right sentence is precisely what I am striving for in my writing. It is not a case of writing what you know, or writing from your wildest imagination, but of writing exactly what you mean, or as close as you can get. That is authenticity.

I can write very fast when I want to. I wrote my first, failed attempt at a novel very fast indeed, in a matter of weeks. I loved writing that way – I felt so productive! It was useful, too. I needed to know what it felt like to write that number of words, to write a story that big. But it was a terrible attempt at a novel. Terrible. Awful. It had no soul, and it didn’t mean anything, or the meaning was so obscured by the dreadful writing that my courage failed at the thought of trying to fix it. So I know that, for me, it takes time and craft to find what’s true and worthwhile in my writing. By craft, I mean only what is quoted above: the balancing of words and sentences and scenes and chapters, one against another, until they are right. For me, that is a slow, careful, thoughtful, insanely difficult business.

Instead of trying to write more! and write faster! I am trying to write less, and write more slowly. It is a strange feeling to be making myself slow down at a time when I feel terribly unproductive. All other writers in the world appear to work faster, harder, and more successfully than I do. But I have learned that comparing myself to other writers is a surefire way to mess my head up. I eschew all writing advice, all rules, all guidelines. The only knowledge you can bank on is that which you learn through your own experience. That which you know to be true, because it is written in blood, tears, scars, years – that is truth you can depend on. No one can help you with that.


don’t listen to the voices

As a child, my creativity was not exactly nurtured and encouraged. Attempts at art were met with laughter (“What is it supposed to be?”) When I tried to learn the violin, I was accused of aural torture (“It sounds like you’re trying to kill a cat.”) When I showed off my ‘ballet’ dancing, it was made clear just how wrong I was about my skill level there (“As graceful as a herd of elephants!”) As a child I didn’t understand that art has to be practised before it gets better. If I was bad at something, then I needed to stop doing it right away.

Literature and art were valued by and important to my family in some ways. But it seemed that the making of art was for other people.  I grew up believing that only geniuses and special people could be painters, dancers, musicians and writers. And since I wasn’t a genius or special, any of my attempts to paint, dance, play or write would be met with laughter and a sort of nervous contempt. Who do you think you are? People are just going to laugh at you. You’re not good enough.

No wonder, then, that it took me a long time to take my writing seriously and call myself a writer. I still reel at the amount of courage needed every time I say, “I’m a writer.”

No wonder, too, that sometimes self-criticism disables or diminishes my ability to write well. It is hard to devote time and energy to writing when in your head the voices are reeling off reasons why you’re so very wrong about everything.

It helps to say to myself, as often as possible, “You are a good writer.” I don’t say it as some kind of affirmation, thinking that if I say it enough times the universe will make it come true. I say it because it IS true. Speaking the truth gives me courage. Without courage, I can’t write.

I am a good writer. I do have talent. I have the ability to move people with my words. That is not a little thing. That is not something that can be discounted or thrown away. It’s a gift, one that I should be proud of. A gift that I should protect and nurture and grow.

To say I am good doesn’t mean that I think I am great, the greatest, a genius, a wonder. Just that I am good enough. Good enough to sit down to work and try to become better. Good enough to try. Good enough to use the gifts I have in order to make the world a better place, even if it’s just a tiny little bit. Good enough to tell myself: keep going. Good enough to shout down the voices that tell me I’m an idiot for trying, that I’m hubristic for wanting to be better, that I’m making a fool of myself.

So what if I make a fool of myself? The alternative is to never risk anything. I think that’s what frightened my family – taking those risks, looking stupid to others, being vulnerable to criticism and rejection. Yes, those things are hard as hell. And sometimes (often) you do get rejected, and you do get criticised, and you do feel stupid. It hurts. But it doesn’t kill you. What kills you is never using your gift, never exploring your talent, never following your heart. What kills you is giving up. So don’t give up.

i can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible

Yeah, bye 2011. Apart from the last couple of months, you were rubbish.

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, because the truth is that I’m constantly resolving to do better and change things in my life. But this new year has fallen at an auspicious time for me, a time when I am already in the process of making big changes. So that whole ‘fresh start’ thing is a nice boost.

Amongst other things, I resolve to blog more often. I mean, at least once a week. If you don’t blog once a week, then you can’t really call it a blog, can you? So there’s a public declaration of intent… feel free to kick my butt if I fail on this one.

I’ve got a load of writing goals this year, the main ones being to finish what I start, and to get these damn novels written. I have three, in varying states of unfinishedness, and I need to whip them all into shape. Apart from that, there are various other goals, some of which will remain secret, and some which are just too pedestrian to recount here. But 2012 is going to be the year when my writing career starts kicking into gear. At least, that’s the plan.

My word for the coming year is COURAGE. I often lack it, and I need a lot of it. Sometimes it takes courage just to sit down and write something, ignoring the terrible voices that seem to have a lot invested in the idea that I can’t, or shouldn’t. It takes courage to do simple things, make big decisions, ignore petty people, stay focused. I know I will have a lot of challenges this year, and I hope I’m courageous enough to do what I need to do.

And as for you in 2012? May your neurons fire without fail; may your dendrites be stimulated; may your chemicals remain balanced; may your body support all your mind’s plans; and may the mysteries descend upon you.

don’t you want me, baby?

Everyone wants to be loved. Everybody wants acceptance. Everybody wants to succeed. But if you are a writer, these three things – love, acceptance, and success – may at times be in very short supply.

Rejection, on the other hand, appears to be drawn from an inexhaustible well, one that keeps right on giving throughout a writer’s career. I have not yet reached the dizzy heights of three-book publishing deals and my titles on posters in Waterstones, but I am pretty sure that if I should ever get there, rejection will still be a significant part of my life. And it will still hurt.

Editors who don’t want your stories, critics and readers who write bad reviews, friends and family who think you’re nuts for even trying, peers who try to cut you down and undermine your achievements… These things are never okay. They are always going to cause you pain and frustration. Even the good and lovely things that happen cannot make up for the pain of being told you don’t cut it as a writer.

It hurts so much because what we write is personal. Stories come through us in revealing and strange ways. When you write something, it is like going on a journey (one which may take you to some sinister, frightening places), and bringing back this odd prize, this story.  Now you hold it up to the light, trying to reflect its unusual beauty – and rejection is people telling you it wasn’t worth the effort.

I once read a review about one of my stories that was so scathing, so unkind, that it stopped me writing for months. It made me frightened to write anything else, scared that more scorn and bile would be poured over my creations, terrified that this person might be right. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that this critic had some kind of personal axe to grind, but at the time, I was deeply affected.

Ultimately, however, that guy did me a favour. Up until that point, I had been pretty lucky. I had heard mainly good things about my writing, and even the few rejections I’d experienced had been, at worst, neutral. Suddenly I was forced to look rejection in the face, and deal with it. It made me realise that I had to get tougher. Either I could wither under the scornful gaze of those who disliked my work, or I could say, ‘I don’t care,’ and carry on regardless. It took me a while, but eventually I chose to stop caring so much and to keep writing the things I wanted to write.

Rejection hurts, but at some point, you have to stop caring about it. It’s not that it doesn’t matter, but these days, rejection is something I don’t dwell on. The fact that you are getting rejections, bad reviews, jealous swipes from peers – these things can only happen because you are submitting stories, getting published and read, and causing people to take notice. Getting rejected means that you’re in the game, you’re playing – winning some, losing others, but you’re taking part. Even when it’s horrible, it’s still way better than being a spectator. Spectators may never get told they’re not good enough, but that’s only because they don’t have the courage to play.