Write from start to finish

I’ll never been a plotter, but I have been experimenting with writing from the start

“And what about your writing”, a kind friend asks as I recount my months of coming to term with chronic illness alongside my usual life stresses. What about it? Well, it’s clear that I always bristle against this question. But the truth I have been making small slow steps in the direction of finishing a draft. One of biggest, and hardest revelations has been that I may have been doing it if not wrong, then definitely the hard way.

While I confess I enjoy the spark of an idea leading me to write a scene, as inspiration really is everywhere, it might not be the best way of getting to the end of the draft. I have scores of words written on the same book. But will the end ever be in sight?

To disentangle my plot I resorted to an excel spreadsheet of scenes and started to see where there was too much jumping around. I stripped away these scenes so that I could follow the main character. It is a story told from more than one perspective, but I was unbalanced by the main character who kept insisting on her chapters. Once I had more of a handle on the chronology of the scenes, I was able to start again from the beginning and write, you know, what happens.

Photo by Teona Swift on Pexels.com – Time for more tea?

It has been a laborious process and I suppose it could be called rewriting really. I have been training myself to go through from start to finish – what a revelation! On the way I notice the gaps and write them. I also notice the
repetitions which are numerous and seem to be mainly based around having cups of tea. Set in a quaint English cottage, I suppose we have to expect that she would drink a lot of tea but I really did notice how much she used the kettle. I repeated the Word Cloud exercise I have recommended before as a technology that can help writers. Definitely a lot of tea and kettle!

And even in this systematic process, I am not at the end. Well, maybe I am. I have a scene written, but I am really not satisfied with how we ramble our way there. As I have worked through from the beginning, diligently start to finish, I come to another even more disturbing revelation; I am not happy with my start. My start is probably a middle, a twist midway.

So, since the beginning of the year, I am filling in the characters that been on the peripheral of the story and shaping much more to the journey where my original start comes in. And in the thickets and weeds of the story, I have started to pull out other elements and be merciless with others. What is it they always say about writing: leave early, enter late. Seems like this is the issue I have been wrangling with – where is the start, how do we get to the finish and hoping others will care enough about where this person is in her life. About the disruptions and problems she faces.

I have been writing, even in small fits and starts but “It’s difficult” I tell my friend. I have to keep my energy packets for my son, for work, leaving the house occasionally. But it’s also difficult because I have made it so. With other projects that have snuck in to take my attention, I am being much stricter now to give myself a chance. My writing process, though always likely to be slow for a variety of reasons, well now it goes from the start and plods on to the finish. Unless inspiration just happens to strike again, of course!

Journal Prompts for Creativity

Whenever you feel a creative block, turn to your journal

Although I completed The Artist’s Way programme two years ago, I still dip in for journalling prompts. Some of these ideas are adapted from themes Julia Cameron asks you to explore. Here are 15 tried and tested prompts for your journal
 
Encourage and nurture your Inner Artist:
1.       A letter to your encourager, Write to someone who has helped you but has no idea that their words spurred you on

A notebook with pen resting on it, ready to write

2. A letter to your detractors, are there some inner critic voices that have stuck in your head? Tell them! But don’t send the letter.
3.       What is your perfect day, if you no obligations. You may be surprised how simple your needs are but you should definitely write as if money is no object. Then take even a small piece of that dream day and put it in your week.


Make plans for the life you want
4.       If you have a list of goals, review them and write down even small ways you have worked towards them. This can be so encouraging and also remind you to break down those goals into more manageable chunks
5.       List places you love going, this has been a really helpful one with so much staying at home in pandemic times. It will be no surprise that I quickly identified woodland as places I want to go as well as missing the theatre and cafes for writing.
6.       Ask yourself what your dream job looks like. If it doesn’t align with what you do right now, what are the steps you can take


Take Account
7.       The five senses of gratefulness. You should probably write what you are grateful for eveyday, but it is fun to think about each sense and write five things for each that you love having: warm socks, a favourite album -all those things that bring you joy.
8.       Friends you have forgotten. I have been working on a book a lot about friendship and this lead to me listing lots of people who have been my friends for a season and how they have helped me
9.        Write your alternative reality. Are there other lives you could have led. Are there opportunities you didn’t follow? Jobs you didn’t take up? I was supposed to move in with a friend when I took up a place in another city, what could have been?
10.   Write down what you remember about your Grandma or any important relative or friend who has died. This can be emotional but also a heartening way to live, remembering small things about a person that was uniquely theirs is a beautiful way to hold the still.
11.   Take Fierce Medicine. As Ana Forrest advises we should take fierce medicine or practice a death meditation to open us up to what we truly want, keep your journal close and reflect on what the thoughts of your last moments tell you. Then follow this guidance to change your life.


Find Inspiration
12.   List song lyrics stuck in your head. This is a great way to realise what you are focused on. You can even make an inspirational playlist if the songs inspire you.
13.   What books have you read recently? What are their commonalities, its surprising when you realise how you are going through a phase- I have read or listened to lots of classics, need light humour or adventures to listen or read about.
14.   Plan your dream holiday. I took this one to a Pinterest board in the end. Even if it is not for now, it felt good to think we might go on holidays again. Some of the ideas may be far in the future as they are not practical for our family but I felt lighter just taking the trip in my head
15.   Who do you admire and what do you admire about them? This can be interesting one to reflect on particularly if you follow people online but don’t know them. What are the things that you find so inspiring?

I would love to know if these journal ideas work for you. They always help me through a creative block.

Earliest Reading Memories

Do vivid images of the first novels you read haunt you?

Relistening to classic novels recently, I am struck by the fondness I have for certain books that I have returned to over the years. Through a myriad life experiences, I have come again to Jane Eyre – the first classic I ever read- and other favourites such as Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights. And listening in the last few weeks it strikes me that the same images come straight to mind that I think I first had as a child.

I vividly remember the first time I envisioned Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. The greyed and dank room as oppressive to me as a child as it is now. Dickens writes that the…

…centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies run home to it, and running out from it…

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

No wonder I have had life long arachnophobia. The rotten core at the heart of respectability that Pip longs for fascinates us throughout the novel . Though the jilted bride hits differently now, I can’t help marvel that it still has the power to creep me out.

Jane Eyre as I have written about before remains one of my favourites so I struggle to say which scene remains most vivid. Her slap of John, the demise of poor Helen all have a life long resonance. I think probably the terror of the red room, – in my mind’s eye still not the rich red of velvet but more bloodred scarlet, – remains with me from my first reading.

Found here, a depiction of the red room that chimes with the red in my mind’s eye

Now I read this book very differently. Hardly surprising. Wild Sargasso Sea, a retelling from the perspective of Bertha, the essay The Mad Woman in the Attic, was written in the 1960 so this novel has long had a questionable commentary about race. As with Wuthering Heights I have discomfort now with some of the descriptions. Jane Eyre has a Bertha Mason described as “a clothed hyena” and she is wholly othered by the novel. In the novel the portrayal of her race and mental state seem to be connected. Heathcliff an “untamed creature” is described using epithets that describe his race ambiguously and problematically. And if course it’s depiction of domestic violence grows more uncomfortable with age, even as we celebrate our strong heroine.

But somehow, though I may analyse and wrestle with my thoughts about these novels (I am an English graduate, afterall,) I still return to them. It strikes me how important a powerful image is to hook the reader. And given my back catalogue of haunted houses, dark moors and madness, it’s hardly surprising I love gothic fiction best of all.

Certain scenes are truly like replaying a movie which I find at once both remarkable that these books impacted my life so much, and a comfort. Though it is right to interrogate this fiction, a re-read will always be a home-coming of sorts.

I would love to know what images remain from your childhood reading list? Do you think they influence you to this day?

Tripping up

Things go wrong in life sometimes just to remind you to find the humour

Today I walked in the woods. This is a common occurrence, the setting of my work-in-progress is wooded so I get to call it a research trip. Though I haven’t actually worked on it or made progress for quite sometime, getting out in nature was calling to me. So in the interest of research, -or just indulging my passion for the best season, Autumn– I have been out and about amongst the trees again.

I took a shot of a fairy door, the oaks twisted me around so I got a little lost and there were acorn galore to crunch on..so far, so perfect. And then, the puddles starting to seep through my trainers, I decided to make my way back another way. Winding through soggy earth to spot footholds I made it back to the main path. But my way was not clear, the path was flooded but I couldn’t face going back on myself. Instead I performed a spectacular leap across the path in a bid to jump over a pond-like puddle. Rather than fly effortlessly to the other side, I landed in it, cracking my knee and getting water all the way up my leg. All the way. I might as well walked back along the river.

The worst thing about falling over as an adult is you are not supposed to cry but laugh it off. Alone,there was noone to pull me up, noone to hear me gamely laugh along. Actually, that may be the best thing today. Looking around, I had got away with it. Not a soul to see my fall or more importantly how pathetic my leap had been. I managed an awkward limp along until I established my legs were working alright. I got back mainly unseen in very muddy clothes, stripped off at the door and found a dramatic scraped knee but little else to show.

But you have got to laugh. And I did at myself for being a clutz. And also because I think scraped knees are supposed to be something that happens to children and if I hadn’t been taking pleasure in nature for the sake of it, this wouldn’t have happened to me. I remember someone who read a scene about my main character said to me “I think she’s quite witty.” A compliment, for sure. But also because seeing adults doing childlike things there has to be some comedy there.

When I do something ridiculous (which happens more than it should) I think I can “use this” in my work. Not necessarily to write comedy, but because if life isn’t tripping your characters up then what are they even doing in the woods in the first place?

REVIEW: Among the Trees

Hayward Gallery, London

What a strange and perfect first foray into London after six months, an exhibition about trees at the Southbank Centre. In truth I chose an event at the Southbank because it is just one train to get there for me, reducing the time out in a mask. Like testing the water, a place I know so not too far out of my comfort zone. I have written before about my anxieties in the City which always go hand-in-hand with the child-like buzz of excitement I get to be there.

So in town again, amongst not too many people, I am also at an exhibition designed for me, it seems, called Among the Trees. It is a collection of artwork from the last fifty years that captures trees and importantly human’s interactions with them. A time span chosen to reflect the modern environmentalist movement. With this in mind, the centre piece upstairs at the exhibition is a tree of life-size proportions with a leaves of colourful plastic bags. A little on the nose, it is a bright moment in quite a dark exhibition.

My favourite piece another large installation is Forêt Palatine – a cardboard forest. What is great that climbing the stairs I got a view of the whole exhibition space, everyone mercifully spread out, and a glimpse of the forest. The detail on it, made you want to touch but you can’t. A tale for now, indeed.

I loved the Rachel Sussman photographs too, she has travelled the world for a decade finding the oldest things on the planet, like the underground forest in South Africa that has been in the ground for 13,000 years. Nothing like living through a pandemic for an existential crisis. But isn’t this the perfect place to be. The two video installations of trees begging us to just stop and stare. They anchor us and challenge our ideas about longevity.

The final gallery speaks more to human interaction with trees, photos of New York trees with metal fencing growing through them and a British painter, George Shaw displaying rubbish around an old tree. These artworks, rather than venerate the old trees, remark on how we encroach on natural life. These and Sussmann’s work in stark contrast where an ancient tree is in a open landscape, a pillar of ancient in a sparse world.

I think this was a great way back to the museum. The exhibition has a simple message but one that speaks to us if we just take a moment to reflect on the way we have been forced to slow down. Where was the one place we spent our daily exercise during lockdown, why local woods of course. And I’m always happiest among the trees.

Has anyone else braved museums in these new-normal times?