Taking some time

Take the time that you need, that’s what I am learning more each day

As part of my bid to have more compassion for my anxious brain I have taken some time off from work, including blogging. Sometimes it is joyous to feel part of the #WritingCommunity and sometimes it feels like a constant reminder that I am not doing enough. I wrote just before we went in lockdown as a country that I was taking simple steps to make life a bit easier. But I have also been doing what I can just to survive.

As this pandemic takes hold in parts of the world with far worse conditions than I live in, after the horrendous explosion at the Lebanese docks, as the economic impact starts to wreak havoc on many lives, I find increasingly connecting to the outside world is overwhelming. Yes to keeping abreast of the news, being a member of the community, a charity-giver, but no to the constant barrage of The News.

In reality this has mainly meant stepping away from Twitter. I took a break to censor Wiley after his heinous anti-semitism a few weeks ago and am now using it very little. Helped along by the fact we have come to a remote spot to enjoy a week’s peace and relaxation. I have never felt luckier to be able to do this. We always staycation (hate that term) and love a countryside holiday from our usually busy, urban lives. Last year I wrote just how much a change of scene can give you new ideas. But I think it also helps with a new perspective on what you need in life.

With this in mind I have a new practice to add to my list of Artist Dates (that I have described in previous posts) which I would recommend to chill out more.

Stone-stacking on the pebbled beach while I am on holiday whilst my son played with his trucks (and knocked over my towers) was both playful and mindful. To take time, flattening the space around, searching for nearby rocks that are smooth enough to stack absorbs your mind completely. Then placing each stone took time and care. A lesson then on taking the time you need to create something beautiful.

What quiet thing do you do to take time out?

The place for escapism

Often I hide how superficial I am but, no more, we all need to escape sometimes…

I have written before about the distractions I find on Hayu, mainly keeping up with ridiculous antics of Housewives, mouth open. I mean there’s something just truly satisfying about slobbing in your pajamas while you watch women in amazing clothes argue about the same thing for weeks on end. Unfortunately there are also Instagram accounts and Twitter feuds you can follow so that you can be embroiled in the stories for months before you see an episode. As I find myself this week trying to establish a timeline of exactly when RHOBH ladies went to Italy, I drew back a little. I had gone in too deep.

When your rubbish tv habits leads you down an internet rabbit hole, it’s time to put your phone down and pick up your kindle/book. Well that has been my solution. Here are some places I went in the last few weeks. A list of escapism fiction I would recommend if you are lucky enough to be away for a staycation or just staying at home.

Social Creature by Tara Burton Isabelle

A hit debut a few years ago this thoroughly nasty book about living your best life (online at least) is about two new friends Lavinia and Louise. Louise idolises her new friend, they live a lavish life around Manhattan, partying and drinking hard. The pure escapism comes in watching their friendship unfold with plenty of hashtags along the way. The tales twists darkly as Louise morphs her identity and eventually her life into the supremely narcisstic and fascinating Lavinia. This was a fast-paced novel that felt a bit like binge-watching You or Gossip Girl.

If you like this you would also like: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, I don’t why but I do enjoy a novel of hard partiers – vicarious living as a stay-at-home person, even in pre-pandemic times. This goes much deeper than Social Creatures and digs into female friendship in an equally fascinating way.

So Lucky by Dawn O’Porter

I was excited to read this novel having enjoyed The Cows by the same author. We follow the lives of three main characters. Women whose lives are entangled with the online world of a model Laura, about to get married to her millionaire boyfriend in an extravagent wedding. It is part farce, to watch various things go wrong in each woman’s life, but also part commentary about the shallowness of living life online. I think that O’Porter, who has herself a large following on Instagram and watched the destruction of her close friend, Caroline Flack, writes so well about the myriad of social issues caused by projecting our image all the time. It’s a novel that make you think, is of the present moment, but is also just really funny. I think the way she brings her characters together at the end speaks to a positive and uplifting womanhood.

If you like this, you’ll like: My Thoughts Exactly, Lily Allen. I loved the heart at the centre of this memoir about the star’s life of mistakes, lived outloud and online. I think the honesty of this book is what appealled to me.

I hope in some way you get a chance to escape this year, even if it is just in the pages of fiction.

Keeping up to date

It’s hard not to get bogged down in recent history in contemporary fiction

How do you write in the contemporary space? I have been struggling of late. The huge seismic shift of all-consuming Brexit, the Olympics which unexpectedly filled Brits with optimism, the knock on effects of years of recession and austerity. The impossible thought of presidencies and premierships that could never happen…but did. These things swirl round in the back of the world I write in. And then there is now. Pandemic times

In my mind there are now clear before times. I thought I felt this about the Brexit vote but now I know that was nothing. There is a before. Maybe there will be an after. Landscapes are shifting and changing around us. And I feel there is also great movements in politics which are shaping our world. Too much to write about.

So if you write in the contemporary space you have to take great leaps of faith. Get specific enough about setting and know it well enough that it rings true to that backdrop of the world’s rapidly changing climate. (And climate change too, how can that not be in our narratives).

In 2018 I was lucky enough to listen to Salman Rushdie’s talk “From Midnight’s Children to Trump’s America” at the Southbank Centre. This article reminds me of what he said about writing in the near present,

‘The thing that is weirdest about this book is that, when I started writing it, no one was thinking about Trump. […] When the phenomenon on Trump started, I realised that I had a character who was a corrupt billionaire, […] who liked to have his name very big on buildings and had a much younger Eastern European trophy wife. I thought – what? It’s as if the thing had jumped off the pages from my book into the real world.’

Salman Rushdie

I have been reading Rushdie’s The Golden House this week and thinking about the rifts in America that it addresses, and over here, and everywhere of course. It is a hard novel for me to read, a character with Aspergers is explored but through quite a negative lens which jars with my outlook on neurodiversity. But then, as we become entwined in the Golden family, no-one is particularly likeable. An unreliable narrator on the fringes of their life, it is hardly surprising that Rene, the auteur, does not paint any of the family in a positive light. So far, it is a fascinating depiction of money and power. And yes prescient too.

N-W by Zadie Smith

Alongside this, I have been reading N-W by Zadie Smith , circling around the lives of various people in Northwest London. It is a challenging read, much like I wrote about Girl, Woman, Other it seems almost like a series of vignettes, where you snap away from characters you have invested in to see others around them and many voices and styles of narrative are used. The intention seems to be to offer a “polyphonic” world that reflects the nature of urban life.

The novels tell the series of stories of very different people. (As I found White Teeth when I was studying Rushdie I have always paired these novelists in my head! ) I feel these two urban sagas, though very different, have been playing through my mind that there is a choice to lean in to the politics of the place. The writing then that seems to “jump off the page” into real life, in fact gives us a place to explore and appreciate the fault lines in the worlds they write about.

It’s been fascinating to spend a few months within the space of urban and contemporary fiction although on my reading list now are some fantasy and historical works to balance it all out. After all my current work-in-progress is about escaping to the countryside.

While I ponder which era I best like to read in, I wonder most how this year will end up being written?

It starts with an image…

There are bored people, hanging out in parks and it reminded me so strongly of childhood I started to write…

It is strange to reflect on where inspiration can strike, I wrote last year that prompts are everywhere. But the people doing nothing, freed from lockdown, perhaps still not able to work, stood out to me as I sat and watched. It’s noticeable that more people are in the parks. In this area they have become the saviour of our lockdown lives. Many people with little or no garden rely on this space to see some green. Whether because there are fewer places to go, even now, or because we have remembered the great resource of green space, there always seems to be people just hanging around.

Well, I was hanging around on purpose this week as I was completing the Bored and Brilliant Project. I have been taking the challenges suggested in Manoush Zomorodi in her book in order to unleash my creativity. This has included less time online and taking fewer photos. This week I had to take a holiday from my phone so I deleted the addictive game that had been my go-to distraction. It was a wrench, I certainly notice that the phone is where I go to escape a bit from overcrowded living and work stress.

I had no choice then to take myself out to try some time doing nothing, noticing more around me. First I tried sitting by the river, a treat because I have not been so far afield until this week. I counted forty swans parading under the Thames bridge. But I also had to combat the fear and anxiety of being outside and on a pedestrian thoroughfare which still seems riskier right now that I am comfortable with.

From Seligr on Flickr, not taken by me

Plagued with the anxiety and trying to keep my tears to myself, I decided I needed a quieter spot to try and people-watch. So off to small, local park, where people of all ages lounged in small groups or exercised. Sat on a bench watching others, I had a brainwave and broke the rules. My phone is often where I put snippets of words that come to me and a nostalgia for my home town struck me.

I can still see them sat on the green electricity box, legs swinging, swigging from a bottle.

I don’t know that all the little sentences and phrases and collect have to go anywhere, but it was interesting to see that the bored brain did come up with the germ of an idea.

As far as the challenge goes, I would recommend it as a way of considering the impact of our fast-paced, online lives. The caveat I would make is that this book may not be for you if your anxiety often overwhelms you. I think there is a place for the way that we distract ourselves, particularly if you find your mind doesn’t wander to brilliance but spends time in rumination.

You can read more about my project here, have you tried being bored and brilliant?

Time Alone

Taking time to be creative is even more of a prize right now

I have written before that “I want to be alone” but what if time alone is harder than ever before? We are on top of each other even more than before, living through the pandemic, mostly inside. My son’s neediness has increased unsurprisingly at this anxious time. And my need to be alone has led to even more barricading myself in to my room not entirely successfully.

Though we are getting back to some normality in the UK now, the advice is still to work from home where you can. This eases pressures on office space that has been marked out for social distance. Even with the move towards keeping 1m+ distance, my old office certainly can’t hold everyone. It also means people only use transport when they really have to and this has meant that in reality we are staying at home. And though I am grateful to have work, it is increasingly obvious that the house is small to serve as two offices and a part-time home school.

Our world has shifted slightly in the last few weeks. My son has been able to go first for a play session at a local centre and now he is back to school a few days. The effect was I suddenly found myself in the house on my own. I texted my friends immediately. “What shall I do?” I asked. Sleep came one reply. Watch trashy TV, another. Treat yourself, they all said.

I hardly knew what to do and had that desperate, urgent feeling not to waste the time that I often used to get in the last hour before school pick-up. In the end, I carried on working and ordered coffee and cake from Pret. This was an over-priced indulgence to mark a moment of treating myself. And having my meeting without interruption felt like a real luxury. The coffee incidentally spilled during it’s motorcycle ride so I definitely won’t waste money on that again. But still, it felt good to take a moment to appreciate I was finally alone.

For a first attempt, not bad but I needed to work out how to use time alone more productively. There are a few ways to tap into creativity when you need to, rather than wait for the muse. One way is to use Julia Cameron’s idea of an Artist Date so when I now know I have some time at home alone, I can plan to do something that nurtures my inner artist. You can also use the time to get outside. This can of course be an Artist Date as well but for me, just walking around the neighbourhood for twenty minutes everyday helps me remember, I have some freedom now whilst not wasting too much of that precious time on exercise.

The other thing that I have tried when I have been alone is just to start. With writing a long-form project it feels like you can’t work on it if you don’t have long. This novel, the ever-changing project of too many years, is lengthy but not finished. So instead of seeing the need to rewrite the whole thing. Right now, I can tinker at scenes. And that’s it really, I find when I can pick up where I left off, making use of small pockets of time alone.