Monday, 20 May 2013

Writer's Stress

This wasn’t going to be a confession type blog but I have to confess that as I come, late, to write this week’s post, I am stressed. We have come back from a really lovely weekend away, visiting my film student son in Falmouth for his 19th birthday, and somehow we seem to have walked into a whole world of stress. I’m sorry, this post is not going to be filled with lively and varied ways of expressing things – I said I’m stressed, right? Here are some of the causes, profound and trivial:
  • ·         My husband, a deputy head, is very busy and has Ofsted coming. I probably need to say no more if you have any kind of acquaintance with a teacher. Last year he pretty much succumbed to a serious bout of work stress, so the symptoms we are seeing now are a horrible reminder of a place we don’t want to go back to.
  • ·         My son is in the middle of AS level exams. He is coping well but this and the above factor add up to a house in which I feel I had better not be stressed myself. Or if I must, I have to do it discreetly.
  • ·         My Dad is unwell for pretty much the first time in his life and is awaiting a consultant appointment. I certainly won’t be going to my parents complaining that I’m stressed.
  • ·         I want to enter my novel into a competition with a September deadline, but since I work full time and write in the mornings, evenings and weekends, I am starting to look at the number of busy evenings and weekends between now and then and wondering if I can possibly get it ready. There, at least now this unwriterly rant now merits a place in a writer’s blog.
  • ·         I have a talk to write. I should be writing it now but I am taking the time to tell you how stressed I am.
  • ·         This moan is going to sound like ‘my wallet is too heavy, I can’t lift it’ – but we are going on holiday next Saturday for a week. Holidays are of course nice things, they are good for stress, but we tend to forget how stressful it is clearing a way through normal life so that we can absent ourselves from it for a week. We were away this past weekend. Nothing has been done. The house needs cleaning, there is a huge pile of washing to do, I haven’t even unearthed my summer clothes and the tumble dryer has taken to blowing all the electricity in the house if you turn it on.
  • ·         I have a blog post to write. I looked at my stats after the weekend and was pleased yet alarmed to see how many views the site had had in a few days; now I am picturing a crowd of people turning away disappointed at the lack of new material and deciding not to look again.

Can I write while stressed? Well, we are about to find out as I turn my attention to that talk. The upside to a whirling mind is that it gets you up early in the mornings, so I have some extra time.

Well, having got that out of my system, I actually feel better. I hope that, blog-wise, normal service will be continued soon, though not next week, as I will be on holiday.  Do leave a comment, it will cheer me up!

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Boosting Creativity: A Poem a Day for a Week

A few weeks ago when I was looking at ways to boost a writer's creativity, (The Lion in the Attic: My Top Ten Tips for Boosting Writer's Creativity, April 28th), I came up with the idea that I should write a poem every day for a week. I didn't want to post the poems at the time because that would have turned it into a different undertaking and I wanted it to be all about creativity rather than show and tell. Since then, though, I have looked back on that week and realise just how much the daily exercise stimulated my mind and changed my experience. To begin with, I looked for poetic ways to describe events in my day, or memories provoked by them, and scribbled them down. Later though, I began to grasp just how full of words my days are as I edit art and craft authors' writing, listen to what is going on around me, check my email, news websites, Facebook and other blog posts and read texts on my phone. I started to see these snippets of language as poetic in themselves, needing little more than assembling to create poetry. I recalled a blog post I had read that described how David Bowie used to cut up his own old diaries and use the phrases that resulted in his songwriting ( I began to hear the poetry in the language I encounter every day, that I am not usually aware of, and set about cutting and pasting it into poems. It was a fascinating exercise - I urge you to try it if you haven't. I would not claim for a moment that the results are brilliant, but the exercise reconnected me with a creative, poetic me from a very long time ago, and made me look very differently at my days.

In the car on the way to swimming
I choose silence;
Retreat from a jabbering world.
Swimmers cut you up like impatient drivers;
I swim on, in the flow,
Think of a lost child, a sick father, an author’s complaints.
I get dry and, at the make-up station
Brush an eye like Japanese art,
Another lop-sided, cubist.
I go out to rain, blossoming, fresh;

Running, I get wet.

The girls of the tribe got ready at Saskia’s
Her bedroom the size of my house.
Crimped and parading, we laughed and encouraged,
Lifted on bright hopes and tart wine.
Weeks of anticipation led us,
Painted and trussed up
To Bidborough Village Hall
To find the party already raided,
Underage drinkers disbanded and scattering.
Thrilled by the drama, the rage of injustice, we began the long walk home
Carrying our heels, unfettered, laughing.
It was better than many parties with their casual cruelties
Always a girl in the loos, crying, and me
Not knowing how to be with boys.

Lord, now I know you
I remember my heedless childhood and faithless youth,
The little old lady who hobbled to assembly
And showed us a picture of Jesus and a door
And told us of a light eternal;
How I worried that she’d left her torch on,
So old-fashioned, doddery and odd.

My headmistress at grammar school, a missionary’s daughter
Led hymns each day and I sang, and sang,
And mocked her
A spinster, absurd, saying ‘When I became a man’
To a chorus of giggling.

Later, a teenaged au pair,
I listened as the children’s grandmother
Told me how her son died, at 17, of leukaemia.
C’est ma foi chretienne qui m’a souentu’, she said
My Christian faith kept me going.
 I allowed that this was an amazing thing
That faith could achieve for others.

Lord, years later, when your love burst upon me,
Barely invited, overwhelming,
When I opened the door a tiny crack
And you rushed in
I could finally see the seeds sown, the sweet blessings
Of the faithful
Who I mocked and ignored and scoffed at,
Their efforts fanciful and fruitless.

Lord, how humbly now I thank them;
I hope heaven has ears so they can hear me.

‘Luvly grub and chat yest, many thanks! Xx’
I pause, pondering the cost
Of private prostate treatment, researched online,
Think, ‘We’ll pay, Dad, we have a fund for the car
But I’d rather fix you. I love you, Dad
I’d do anything for you.’
I reply, ‘No probs, we enjoyed it,’
Hope that ‘xx’ says it all.

Amid other people’s writing
I wait for news
Typing in Mexican paste
And sugar toadstools, thinking
A friend might die, another might conceive.
From my window, leaf buds push and glow, juice-green
The sun battles against a cold wind
There’s snow in Spain.
Remove the head from its stick
And apply confectioner’s varnish.
We’ll meet at the Charing Cross Hotel
To plan your book.

Dampen the back of a dusted leaf
And wrap it round the arm.
Hello, Sue, alright, love?
Dust with chocolate brown powder and leave to dry.
Would the twins like to come tomorrow?
Yes thanks, I’m sorry, we’ve got no credit.
The Queen of the Netherlands has abdicated
In favour of her son;
Had beer in the old haunt, end of a mad busy trip,
From Rich in Joe Bananas.
These fairies represent young love.

Use fuchsia pink, Cornish cream and foliage green
Say Hi from me!
Pure food-grade alcohol should be hyphenated throughout.
Amanda: They called me a devil.
Around five, the room falls silent
I am tired of words and waiting.
I walk out in a day blue and blowing
And the sun in the alley by the hostel
Warms my hair.

Dad has rung. I receive this message and fear bad news
Of illness or other complications.
Almost seventy-five, he’s had a dash to hospital
Followed by pain and indignity
After lively years quite illness-free.
This has cast a shadow from some future
We recoil from and don’t want to see.
I ring him back, and hear his news
A scanner in a hidden bend
Has brought his second speeding fine.
I laugh -  I’ll see him Sunday
He’ll try to keep out of trouble until then.

The words of others bubble up and through
I have used foils in tones of gold, copper, red and bronze
And autumnal shades of sheer fabrics.
My friend is not pregnant after all;
I met her on the common, disappointed.
My other friend hangs on to life
Refuses to consider an ending.
His wife keeps up an exhausting front ,
Holds on to the things she wants to say.
Coming back with the twins we met a daughter and a husband
Straight from the hospital, faces telling dismal news.
Think about bags, hair slides, cushions, a bodice
A pair of matching evening shoes.
Samuel has not registered at school today.
A soldering iron was used to burn away
The areas between the foils.
I was 10 minutes late, but was present for most of form time.
Omit the stitching and go straight to the distressing stage.
Chosen people, holy and dearly loved.
I have always been nervous of proper golf clubs.
Strictly no demin or cargo style trousers.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.
I switch everything off: the roaring tower, the flickering screen
 And journey home in goldening green.
We must be on the lookout for just the right detail.
A magnolia tree drops fat pink petals
A carpet for my feet.

Monday, 6 May 2013

If You’re Writing About Trauma, Read This Book

“ ‘Torture your protagonist’ urges novelist and creative writing tutor, Janet Fitch. The more sadistically you torture them ‘along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story.’ “ So says Mslexia’s ’10 Commandments’ for writers (issue 57). If, like me, you are writing a psychological thriller, there is all the more need to put your characters through intense, believable trauma. I found a huge source of information and insight in Laurence Gonzales’ book: Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience.

 Gonzales recounts in a readable, novelistic style the survival stories of thirteen people who have been through extraordinary traumas, and have reacted and recovered in different ways. The stories themselves are jaw-dropping: Lisette was shot by her husband; Eileen was attacked by a crocodile; Aron (of 27 Hours fame) cut off his own arm to escape from a canyon; US Marine Chris lost a leg in an explosion in Iraq; Ann’s five-year-old daughter suddenly died; Kathy survived cancer; Patricia and Trevor were attacked by a bear; Don’s ship was torpedoed; Leon survived a Nazi concentration camp.
Gonzales dips into psychology and neuroscience to explain the effects of trauma and the ways in which the body and mind survive it, suffer from it, react to it in later life and recover from it. The science is accessible and highly illuminating for anyone fascinated by the variety of human experience, from the function of rage in survival, to the neural pathways created by loving and caring for a child; from the exhilarating effect of going on holiday, to the scientific reason for that ‘sixth sense’ that warns us of danger in a way we cannot rationally explain.
This is one of those books that you can’t stop talking about, and when you have recommended it to someone, you can’t rest until they have read it. But how did it benefit my writing? Since I am writing a psychological thriller, Unspeakable Things, I need to put my heroine through extraordinary trauma, yet make both this and her reaction to it believable. There is nothing worse than reading an account of something that should be remarkable, and thinking, ‘Hm, that’s probably how I would describe that if I tried, not particularly hard, to think what it would be like.’ Experience is real, vivid and unexpected, and our writing about extraordinary events should be fresh and surprising, but have that ring of truth that sparks recognition in the reader. This is where Gonzales’ novelistic accounts of trauma come in. They gain from both his scientific studies of the brain’s reaction to trauma, and the first-hand accounts of the survivors. The accounts are very rarely what you would come up with if you sat down to write such a scene from a brief scan of your imagination, in the way that lazy writing is done.
 After Lisette’s husband shot her, she ran from the house. ‘She heard another shot but felt nothing,. Then, all at once, she knew what he had done. That last shot had been for him. She put it from her mind. She had a single purpose now. Survive.’
After escaping the crocodile’s jaws and diving down to the sea bed, Eileen ‘became sharply aware that she might die down there. All that she loved... snatched away from her in the single appalling act of a mindless creature... that thought made her angry.’
When Aron Ralston (of 27 Hours fame) found that his arm was crushed, trapping him in a canyon, having told no one where he was going, ‘He felt a rush of sadness and remorse for the thing he’d done.’
When Micki Glenn was attacked by a shark, which bit down to her spine, time appeared to slow down and she felt no pain, only pressure, ‘like I was in a vise.’ She could perceive the most minute details of what the shark was doing as it bit off chunks of her.
As doctors fought to save her five-year-old daughter, who had been perfectly healthy only hours before, Ann “looked up and saw that both her husband and Dr. Green were weeping. This made no sense. It made even less sense when the attending physican turned to Ann and said, ‘Your daughter is not going to make it’. It made so little sense that Ann laughed out loud.”
It is not the fact that these accounts are graphic that makes them excellent reading for writers of trauma, it is that they are surprising. It is the unexpected nature of the experiences described that convinces us that they are true. Even though the events we describe in fiction are not true, we can borrow from the vivid strangeness of these accounts and our writing can become shot through with the unexpected and elevated beyond a mundane imagining of what trauma might be like.