Friday, November 04, 2011

Authorial Self-Confidence (Part 1) or Why writers are a little crazy (it's the voices in our heads)

Today I want to write about something which is all tangled up with who I am as a writer and which is, I think, intrinsic to the writing process: authorial self-confidence.

Even as I write this, I look at that statement: ‘authorial self-confidence’. In my head, this sounds like what I mean, but is it technically correct? There is a little flag in the back of my mind which is suggesting that ‘authorial confidence’ would usually be used within a stylistic context, to denote a particularly deftly managed voice for example. Someone cleverer than I am, more learned than I am, will pick this up in a heartbeat. For that matter, ‘in a heartbeat’ is clearly a cliché. What does it say about me as a writer that I have resorted to this over-used phrase rather than a fresh, new metaphor? And this is exactly what I mean. As writers, we become hyperaware of the words that we use and the way that they will be received by others. This can come to the point where you are afraid to write anything at all.

One of my tutors once said that to make it as a writer, you need an equal balance of arrogance and humility. There is a lot of truth to this, although I wince at the suggestion that arrogance among writers is something to be condoned, is even an essential part of the writing process. Replacing ‘arrogance’ with ‘self-belief’, however, describes in my view exactly the weird dichotomy that both plagues and strengthens most writers. To be a writer, you have to get this balance right or, forgive the dramatic but I think it’s true, it destroys you.

The humility is vitally important and is part, I think, of a constant desire to learn, to understand better and deeper the complexities and contradictions of the world around us, the things that have happened and the things that might happen. To ask ‘what if?’ or ‘why?’ requires both humility and determination: ‘I don’t know the answer, but I am going to write to find out, for myself, and so I can share what I’ve learned with you.’ Writing isn’t for me a matter of saying ‘look how much I know, now I’m going to teach you, lucky reader’ but ‘look we’re asking the same questions, and I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to finding my own version of an answer, so please, have a look and see whether this resonates with you too.’

Along with this, humility pushes the necessary constant drive to be better than you are. If you believe that every word you write is perfect as it is, that stories fly fully formed from the genius of your brain to the page, that criticism is just from people who ‘don’t get it’ and that’s their fault, not yours, you’ll stick forever in stasis. You won’t improve because you don’t believe that you need improving and, 99.9% of the time, that’s wrong. Part of the transformative nature of writing is the moment when this thing you’ve written suddenly pulls together into the thing you hoped it might be able to be. And that’s rarely ever in the first draft.

This is where the self-belief comes in. Some people come to writing as a vocation quite late, but I am one of those who believed in me as a writer almost before I could actually write. One of my clearest early childhood memories is of standing beside my dad’s chair at the kitchen table, dictating a story and making him write it down. I’m not one of those naturally gifted with telling stories in public, to a crowd, but I was always compulsively driven to write them. And for the twenty or so years since that moment when I thought to myself ‘I am a writer, this is what I want to do with my life’, that inherent self-belief has been consistently and thoroughly battered.

And it has to be, that’s part of the process. Because being a writer is a public process, it involves constantly and relentlessly putting yourself and your precious work out into the world and, particularly I think if you are a creative writing student, putting yourself out there sometimes when you know you’re not ready. The self-belief is the little voice, buried rather deeply in a lot of us, which whispers ‘You are good at this. This piece of work may not be perfect – even if you thought it was and have just realised it isn’t – but you are capable of something really good. You know your craft, whatever anyone might say, and you can do this.’ This last bit is important and sometimes overlooked by beginning writers, you do have to get to a point where that is part of the self-belief voice, where the basics of how to tell a story well are both instinctive and understood.

The self-belief voice, in a lot of us, is a quiet one and it suffers under a mind-battering barrage of much louder self-doubt voices which, on a bad day, judge and analyse every word and every comment and take every criticism to heart. These are the opposite of arrogance, they are the crippling self-doubt which means that every single time someone ‘doesn’t get it’ it is always your fault not theirs. It’s the part of you which keeps saying, very reasonably, lining up lots of evidence for your perusal, that you’re deluding yourself if you think that perhaps, in this case, your story just hasn’t worked for that person. This self-doubt voice tells you that you’re just like those arrogant people who think they’re perfect – you just don’t want to accept the truth that you’re not good enough.

I will, on this blog and elsewhere, talk confidently about my writing process, myself as a writer, etc. The writing self-belief voice is quiet but pretty strong in me, mainly because it’s been there for a long time, it’s been tested harshly and just managed to survive so far. But that self-doubt voice is, if anything, even a little bit stronger, always at least jostling confidently for space, and it threatens to obliterate every shred of self-belief every single day. I won’t talk about it too often here for that reason – giving it too much blog-space isn’t interesting to anyone else but is also one of the surest ways to kill the self-belief.

I am aware that all of the above may sound a bit mixed up and contradictory and confusing and consist of lots of run-on sentences full of ‘ands’ like this one. But that’s what it’s like – in my head anyway. Being a writer for me is not just about putting the words on the page, it’s about constantly managing that conflict between self-belief and self-doubt every day, subduing it enough to allow me to put the words on the page.

What do you think? Does anyone else have the same experience (or am I just crazy – I am aware this is a real possibility)? How does this self-confidence war manifest itself in other art forms?

In a follow-up post, maybe next week, I want to talk about this conflict in the context of formal creative writing study, in particular this idea of presenting your work for judgment when you know that it and you aren’t ready. I should be posting to this blog much more often (I know I always say that) over the coming months – I will tell you why next time!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Feminine girls in YA fantasy, or Adventuring in skirts is fun too

On the lovely bank holiday, I was confined to the house on a writing mission, doing edits on my second complete chapter (a topic for another post: how my ideas about ‘process’ may be completely wrong) and I made a minor change that felt major. I took Nessa out of her jeans and put her in a lacy dress and leggings instead.

Okay, that doesn’t sound like much of a change. I had to remove a good bit, I thought, because Nessa wakes from a bewitched sleep, still clothed, and I had a moment where she notices the reddened crease at her waist and the imprint of the button on her stomach. Anyone who has lain down for a moment and woken up hours later knows what I’m talking about – and lovely elasticated leggings do not have the same effect. In the end, I gave her a belt too, so I could have the crease and the dig, the moment was worth saving for the effect.

But it got me thinking because of why I made the change. Suddenly, having changed Nessa’s clothes, I changed her and she came clear in my head in a way she hadn’t before. I had automatically put her in jeans – all teenagers wear jeans, I thought, it’s the default – but when I thought about it that wasn’t true, at least not in England these days. Waiting daily on the train platform with a crowd of teenagers on their way to college (Americans: translate to senior high) in town told me that. So that was part of why I changed her, the sort of girl that I thought Nessa was wouldn’t necessarily have gone for the easy, comfortable, practical option to wear to college. She hadn't woken up intending to go adventuring.

I came of age in an era when YA fantasy authors writing about girls that did things were really coming into their own. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown were among the first (and already well-established when I was an adolescent). In her blog and on her website, McKinley often talks about her frustration with all the books she read as a child where boys got to go out and have adventures. She wanted those adventures too and there was no female equivalent to live vicariously through. So she had to make them up.

The same I think applies to Tamora Pierce, whose Alanna books were for me, and a whole generation of girls my age, the first ‘YA’ fantasy books about girls that do things that we read. I use the ‘YA’ term advisedly – there was a frisson of sexuality in the Alanna books that made them something different to the ‘children’s’ books we’d read before. Alanna was the ultimate girl who does things: she wants to be a knight so disguises herself as a boy, and becomes one.

I loved these books. The thing is, though, I didn’t want to be these girls. I didn’t want to be Harry in The Blue Sword or Alanna. I wanted to be their friend definitely, I wanted to be the girl who lived next door in the dormitory, the quieter softer one. I still wanted the romance, I even wanted the adventure, but I didn’t really see the great appeal of being a warrior. A strong empowered woman, yes, but I didn’t fancy riding off into the sunset with a sword strapped at my hip.

I wasn’t in any sense a tomboy – McKinley says some interesting things about this on her blog – and I didn’t want to be one. I didn’t envy boys their freedom, perhaps because I genuinely felt that my 80’s and 90’s childhood was free of many of the constraints that had plagued my mother’s generation which includes writers like Pierce and McKinley. And it was people like my mum, and these writers, that made it that way.

This is not to say that Pierce and McKinley don’t write girly girls too – Pierce’s Sandry in The Circle of Magic series is an excellent case in point. Magic needlework is totally up my street. I don’t want to see a return to the passive heroines of the past – and I have concerns with some of the recent YA paranormal fantasy/romance trend that we’re slipping that way, into a frightening world of controlling tortured boyfriends and passive helpless girls. Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’ last night looked at a recent and disturbing study of violence in teenage relationships, picking out in particular the way in which mobile phones and social networks mean controlling (often older – though not centur older) boyfriends can expect to keep tabs on their girlfriends wherever they are. And these girls think that this is what it’s meant to be like – it’s this disturbing equation of love with obsession, and helplessness.

Anyway, my point is that we don’t want a return to or development into this. But, girly things are fun! I love making things, knitting, sewing, creating something beautiful out of nothing. Beautiful clothes, beautiful things, flowers and music and romance. There's something magic about all of this and girls who aren't physically strong (and don't yearn to be) are okay too.

Feminine girls can be incredibly emotionally strong and can be heroes. My heroine Nessa is an ordinary teenager – she is semi-popular, she tries to fit in, she wears pretty clothes and used to dream of being a ballet dancer. She is deeply vulnerable – and I do think that this is part of a certain feminine psyche, and it is an important part of her. If she didn’t have the life experience she does, she could have turned into one of those trapped teenage girls in the Radio 4 programme. But part of what makes her a hero and an emotionally strong one, is her deep bond with her physically disabled mother and the way in which she deals with her mother’s injury, has helped create a ‘normal’ life for her out of chaos and fear. She stands up for what she believes in, and she fights for it, she single-handedly – young, a little shy, small – holds everything together, without a sword. Of course, she beats the monsters too, and bravely.

(Just a note: one of the real great heroines of Spenser’s Faerie Queene is Britomart, a lady knight of the Alanna school, so I’ll get my female warrior fix in all its glory a few books on…)

On another but related note, I found this round table of agent advice for thriller writers (not my area of course, but interesting) quite upsetting and odd because of agent Debbie Carter's recommendations. She specifically recommends that writers avoid writing stories 'where the hero or heroine is in a job we don't associate with their gender, like a man working as a stylist in the fashion industry or a female drummer in a rock band.' I am tempted to keep quoting from the article but I suggest you read it for yourself - let me know what you think.

Monday, May 30, 2011

In which I return to Blogland, refreshed - or avowal of new direction of blog in one post only

I did not mean to desert you, my dear friends who still faithfully check in, in the hopes that I might have something to say to you.

Here, I have returned! I shall tell you of my adventures – such as they are. I am returned for good partly because I am writing away at what my educational establishment would call my ‘Masters dissertation’ and what I would call ‘my greatly enjoyable YA fantasy novel filled with lots of fun and exciting things’. I wish to tell you about it, and I hope that someday it will become a real book and you will love it and me already and so buy it immediately, with great joy.

My current work-in-progress will be herein referred to as FQ because that’s what I call it, unoriginally, as it is a modern YA fantasy reimagining of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, an epic Arthurian-styled Elizabethan poem. Note, if you are not familiar with Spenser, that I really do mean epic – my FQ is based on just one of the ‘books’ of The Faerie Queene and is intended to be the first in a 6-7 book series. My story is set in modern-day Devon, England and it stars teenagers Nessa Goldsmith and Christopher Crosse who set out on a quest to rescue Nessa’s disabled mother who has disappeared. But it is also about loyalty and betrayal, trust, deception and delusion, all of which are vital themes in Book 1 of Spenser’s original.

It also has monsters in the living room, ogres on the moor, human villains and ordinary people in conflict. I have drawn much on Spenser’s original, purposefully, and I hope that the story will reflect enough of this to show my debt. At the same time, I have twisted, updated and refashioned the characters and plot points of the original until they are entirely my own, and I have very much my own story to tell.

I’m not going to tell you an awful lot about it now as it is in early stages – only two chapters written but they’re long ones. You will hear more, I promise!

Over the next few months, this blog will meander through the following areas:

  • Writing posts: Writing this book (and the dilemmas and struggles which go with it – and may be just me, or may be universal)
  • Reading posts: Yes, reading Holly Black and Robin McKinley is research in Creative Writing MA-land, and excellent research it is too. I shall give you reviews and musings.
  • Research posts: This might be bits of my exciting research into Spenser, allegory, and the great tome that is The Faerie Queene, it might also be more general writing posts, or about genre and the current world of YA fantasy
  • Other things!: Because I cannot write all the time. I must go to work (we shall avoid this topic where possible), I must knit (we shall not avoid this topic), I must watch television. I must even know about the news and current affairs. I reserve the right to discuss these things unreservedly.

I expect the above to continue, wide-ranging and all-encompassing as it is, but most excitingly it looks likely that I shall be commencing an even more enticing project this October. Still semi-secret but think: Regency romance meets the Arabian Nights meets lots and lots of magic! Stay tuned.

This is an explaining sort of post – next ones will be more interesting, and more fun. To end:

FQ Word Count:

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

In which I commit to 500 words a day regardless of procrastination

This is a picture of Scotland – how I spent my summer holidays in other words. Rain and grey skies and long walks by the lochs as the sun peeked (or not) through the clouds (and one long walk/climb/soul-destroy-and-repair-maneuver up a tall tall mountain in full sunlight). Also an eerie half-light that seemed to linger all night so that you could look up from your computer (writing/Plants vs. Zombies is the best reward) at one in the morning and a timelessness had set in, a Tom’s Midnight Garden sort of moment.

Anyway, I also wrote 17,000 words of new novel which is not about Scotland but came out of a feeling in Scotland and a rather dull dream that I had just before we went but a couple of images stuck with me: an awkward but sublimely confident everyday girl in a shift dress, perched on the edge of a table in an anachronistic aristocratic household, a young man, a bit older, in evening dress, chairs tipped over but a sense of calm.

I write often from atmosphere, I think – I want to write a book that feels like this I often say to myself, the visceral is awfully important to me – I’ll close my eyes and try and sense the scene with all senses. Atmosphere, however, does not a story make, certainly not a YA novel. Characters come naturally to me but plot, oh plot my greatest enemy… But this book has a plot! It is more than characters perched on the edge of tables and chairs, it is buried treasure and political intrigue and fraud and great family secrets and a dash of romance and a dash of the sea. The plot is written!

On return from my two week July jaunt to the Highlands and Islands, I resolved to finish my novel, uninspiredly titled Shena and Robbie, now rather pompously titled Grandings (to change, I’m sure) by the end of the summer. It is now the beginning of November, and my grand total stands at 26,000 words. Not the record I might have hoped for. 9,000 words in three months is not something to be proud of.

But I shall be proud! For from now on, I have a goal of 500 words a day. There was this goal last week too and perhaps the week before, and it ended in failure. But not this time! For it has been proclaimed into Blogland and must be so.

I was going to tell you my ten tips for procrastinating when you have carefully set aside a day for writing and it is now 14:29 and not a word has been written. These included ‘Computer battery has run down. Computer charger is plugged in behind the sofa. The sofa is not the place to be for writing this afternoon’ and ‘Reading other writers’ blogs is almost as good as writing’ or even ‘my husband asked me to load the dishwasher and put the washing on the line – if I’ve done this, maybe I won’t get told off for having done no writing on my writing day…’

But I shall not do this! For writing blog posts must make the list of great procrastinations… I will, however, update you to confirm my measly 500 words, and you, I hope, will applaud loudly.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Test Poem

This is just to see

if Word 2007 really posts to my blog

like it says it does.

Forgive me

it is just an experiment,

more detail soon.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nature - or why I will never make a nature-poet which has never saddened me until now

I first studied writing, seriously, in the woods, surrounded on either side by lakes. My writing teachers were brilliant nature poets and essayists, they wrote the poetic twists and turns of streams and the complex balancing act that is man in nature, man outside nature, man against nature. We read everyone from Gary Snyder to Jim Harrison to Mary Oliver, all writers in their way firmly connected to a wild outdoor environment.

To be honest, I got my fill of nature-writing then and there. It was something that I remembered nostalgically, as a relic from my relatively happy and intensely creative schooldays, but a habit that I never picked up.

For one thing, I am terribly unobservant when it comes to the natural world, to the point where I have sometimes worried about how anyone so obviously unobservant can ever claim to be a writer. In the Alps, bravely soldiering up mountains, I missed eagles, marmots and interestingly-shaped clouds even when given minute directions ('you see that peak over there behind the fir tree... no?). Recently, I have been trying to rectify my abysmal knowledge of trees and flowers on the basis that specificity in writing is important when setting a scene and that the lovely heroine leaning against a silver birch twirling a crimson crysanthemum while waiting for her lover is a more evocative scene then, say, the girl sat under a tree holding a flower. I've made an effort to learn the leaves and bark of the basics - oaks, beeches, horse chestnut, the most confusing rowan and mountain ash. I am ashamed, however, to admit that so far I can only identify by cheating: if it has acorns, or prickly conker shells, I can manage, otherwise they mix themselves up in my head. I can give you a list of trees, and I can see a tree and know that it is familiar, but never do these two trains of thought end up on the same bit of track.

This has all come about because, after gleefully abandoning reading about nature throughout my undergraduate degree, I have plunged myself into a creative writing MA that starts off with three books about the natural world and the wider concept of wilderness and wildness. Beautifully written, intensely thoughtful and perceptive, this is personal creative nonfiction that seems to test all of my reading abilities. Normally a fast reader, even in study mode, it's taken me weeks to get through the first one and a half books. My mind drifts in the spaces between paragraphs, a philosophical point will send me off on a tangent that brings me back two or three pages later when I realise I haven't taken in a word. The effort of concentration has put me to sleep more than once. It is incredibly frustrating - today, I read a few pages of Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places aloud to focus my thoughts and I was impressed by the sheer brilliance and rightness of the language, the description of Irish limestone as coated in pewter, the red berries against white snow in a Scottish forest. It is a beautiful book and Macfarlane has much wider messages about our relationship to nature and our very understanding of the wild places in the world. But I miss so much, seemingly inadvertently, me who can reel off characters and plots and family relationships from books I read years ago.

I think perhaps that it is because I feel an outsider in this world. I want desperately to understand this relationship with the natural world, this feeling of seeing it from the inside out. I go lightheaded in the outdoors - last weekend, dead-tired after endless days at work, I spent a few hours outside in unusually glorious English sunshine in my in-laws' garden a steep hill overflowing with colour and steps made of slate. I lay in the hammock, half-aware of bird song, with my sunglasses, reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a densely exuberant exploration of a year at the author's Virginia home. Dillard muses passionately on everything from the lifecycles of cicadas to the sheer fecundity of nature to the experience of patting a dog at a gas station. She writes with wonder and both an intensity of focus and a lightspeed zoom outwards looking at the natural world from all angles and all distances.

The sun often affects me strangely, and that afternoon I tried to absorb bits of Tinker Creek in a daze. I spent hours outdoors and I could not tell you what flowers I saw, what birds I heard, or really what words I read. I have a vision of it, vague, powerful and lightheaded with a sunstruck headache. I deeply admire this writing, this sort of depth of understanding, of seeing a tree and recognising it not just for its name but also for its mechanics and its cycle through the seasons. I blame, perhaps, my abysmal scientific education, but this all comes back to the same problem - the science I learned didn't stick.

I don't want to sell myself too short. When I stand on one of the Dartmoor tors (that expanse of moorland wilderness is something for another entry, the openess that I miss crammed in between hedgerows, that ability to breathe that you don't always know you've lost) or smell the salt of the sea when the waves hit the side of my train to work in the morning, I want desperately to write it, to capture the feeling of that breath, that wildness, what it means to be a person in that world. I want that Anne Hathaway rose-covered cottage in the country, I get absurdly excited when my tomato plants bear fruit. But I find an allure to nature mainly as setting, almost a persistent anthropomorphic backdrop, as the Yorkshire moors are to Heathcliff and Cathy or, conversely, to little Mary Lennox with her secret garden. I think, for me, it's the natural world as metaphor and as atmosphere that interests me most, and it depresses me that I can't seem to appreciate a world without characters.

Jay Griffith's Wild is proving the easiest read for me although it's possibly the most complex of the three in many ways. It's because, sad as it is to admit it, it's scattered throughout with people that I can latch onto, people as reference points for the wild, and people are something I feel I can understand.

*Notice the abandon with which this entry is written however - perhaps a bit of this joy in the world, this intense way of seeing, this unselfconscious wonder has started to rub off after all.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pasta e Fagioli - or soup is the ultimate comfort food in the rain

Rain has returned to England after that unusually glorious June. Although there was sunshine in the afternoon yesterday, it felt very much a temporary reprieve.

It was therefore time for a comforting homemade soup. I am not an experienced gardener but Simon and I have gone a bit wild with growing vegetables in pots on our small patio and we had home-grown courgette (zucchini), purple French beans (were they meant to be purple?), tiny mutated carrots that looked like curled-up shellfish, and young ruby chard that could all be chopped and simmered with store-bought onion, garlic, tinned tomatoes, basil and oregano. Near the end, I added a tin of cannellini beans and a big scoop of (gluten-free) macaroni.

Serve with a dollop of pesto, lots and lots of grated parmesan, bread (real or not) and a glass of white wine. I dressed for dinner and Simon wore a suit as he'd just come in from his first day in his new job.

Pasta and bean soup has always been one of my favourites since I used to beg my mom to buy Progresso Macaroni and Bean at the one shop that carried it. I used to sit at the kitchen table with my book, a big bowl of steaming soup, and potato chips (crisps to the Brits.)

When I was a young teenager, I saw Rachael Ray make her own version on 30-Minute Meals and it was one of the first dishes I cooked (successfully) for my family. My current recipe is still based on hers.

I loved it so much that I wrote a story called Sapphire Skies Over Milan with 'Pasta e Fagioli' as it's called by the Italians as a central theme. This story got me a first place win at A.R.T.S. and $3000. Until recently, you could still find it on the NFAA website, but I can't find it now. (As a side note, in searching for it, I was slightly concerned by this newsletter which lists a student winning a short story contest the year after with a story of exactly the same name! Am I paranoid to find this a little suspicious?)

Anyway, a taste of the summer harvest and a comfort in the rain. Could you get any better?