Monthly Archives: February 2015

Cats and Dogs (fiction)

‘There is a fundamental difference,’ she said, ‘between dog owners and cat owners.

‘A cat owner is less possessive. You have to be. You have to be able to accept that they have a life away from you, a life you can’t be part of, a life you can know nothing about.

‘You even have to live with the knowledge that one day they might find something better than the thing they have with you. And if that day comes, they will be gone, without warning.’

‘So you have to care less? Love them less?’

‘No,’ she was vehement, ‘if anything you love them more. You just have to not try to possess them. All of this, by the way,’ she took a sip of wine, ‘bodes very well for you.’

‘How’s that?’

‘I’ll never ask anything of you.’

I looked away. This made something inside of me sink, because I knew it was true.

Her name was Yolanda and she lived in a room above a shop. Traffic droned constantly from the street below and there was a dripping tap and a sofa that doubled up as a bed. A black kitten watched us lazily from the corner.

After a while, under covers, I pointed out,

‘But some people keep their cats indoors.’

‘That’s cruel. That’s like,’ she gave a hollow laugh, ‘like being married, I suppose.’

She said I had too much spirit to get married. Just like that, matter-of-fact, as though the very institution would suck the soul out of you, and everybody knew it.

She had red wine teeth, and cigarette breath, and dirt under her fingernails. And I wanted her.

In all the clichéd ways, she was different to what I had at home. Home was Beth, blonde and light; here was something dark, with tinges of red in its hair, like bloodstains.

I wanted to be away from home. ‘There’s this girl…’ I said carefully, my guilty tongue encircling her name. I made stuff up, about how damaged she was, so that Beth would think I was helping her.

‘She’s a student,’ I would say, affronted, when I was questioned for being late home. Moral high-ground? I owned it. ‘I have a responsibility,’ I said.

I didn’t have a responsibility to put my hungry hand up her skirt in the front seat of my car.

I am a mediocre teacher, and a failed poet. From time to time in the perfect home Beth and I shared, I would retreat into melancholy fuelled by coffee and the cigarettes she wanted me to give up. ‘I have my best ideas when I’m smoking,’ I would explain patiently, making biro swirls on reams of paper.

She, being practical, found my habits strange but tried to understand. On the rare occasions I managed to write something she would read it but always want to know the when, who and where. She interpreted everything literally.

She couldn’t fathom the urge that would draw me to the desk at night, to the notebook, and to the window through which I blew plumes of smoke and stared meaningfully at the moon.

What could I say to her? I once tried to sum it up: ‘it’s…an unspecified yearning,’ I said, ‘a hole no-one can fill…not even you.’

‘Pretentious arsehole,’ she had laughed, and pillow-fought me back to bed.

She was reality. Yolanda was a dream.

I thought I knew what I would do. I would do nothing. I would resist temptation. I would get married, cherish my wife and live my whole life, into companionable old age, with my secret regret, and a quiet sense of loss. All great fodder for a poet. And then one day, by a crackling fire probably, my wife would turn to me and dramatically say,

‘I know about her. I’ve always known. I’m sorry you’ve been unhappy, because I love you. I’m sorry I was never quite enough.’

And this would break my cold old poet’s heart, The End.

But that isn’t what I did.

It turned out Yolanda was damaged. She had seen more than anyone should have seen by seventeen. And she knew how to hurt people, in the way that only people who have been hurt themselves know.

We fought and made love in equal measure, always in her room or in my car. She was tough, sometimes violent, even when she cried. I was enthralled. I encouraged her to tell me her stories, tell me her pain, and it gave me guilty vicarious thrills. I drank her brokenness like neat spirits. My treacherous arms cuddled, consoled, and wanted more.

And I would drive home to Beth with her tears still salty on my lips.

When I told her, Beth was devastatingly dignified.

‘You could lose your job,’ she said quietly.

‘Is that a threat?’

‘How little you know me,’ she said, amazed.

She should have thrown me out, but she chose to leave. There was no drama, jus a bag, and a door closing, and silence. I marvelled at how little I missed the woman with whom I had spent seven years of my life. Her saline solution in the bathroom brought an unexpected lump to my throat, but other than that I felt free, exhilarated.

Of course, I thought I had somewhere to go.

I almost knew before I rang the bell that she wouldn’t be there, or wouldn’t answer. I rested my forehead against the door and listened to the echoing space behind it.

In the darkening alley a cat walked with black eyes, full of secrets.

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Don’t Cry Out Loud: Writing as Therapy

I was listening to the radio on Sunday night when they played ‘Don’t Cry Out Loud’ by Elkie Brooks. Many, many years ago my mum used to sing that song and (ironically) it always made me well up, even though I was probably too young to really understand it. Listening to it today, I suppose the lyrics sound a bit corny, but it’s still poignant for me. There’s something about being a strong woman, or at least appearing to be strong, picking yourself up and carrying on, that I can really relate to.

However, as a student of psychotherapeutic counselling, I’m not advocating the advice in the song: “Just keep it inside, learn how to hide your feelings.” (For a more recent take on a similar theme, by the way, check out ‘Turn It Off’ from ‘The Book of Mormon’ – and if you haven’t seen the show, do so as immediately as is possible – it’s brilliant and hilarious). Doesn’t seem a great recipe for emotional health. But we can’t all walk around Sainsbury’s sobbing into the cauliflowers when we feel a bit low, however much we might like to. So writing can provide a brilliant outlet.

This is not news, of course: many of us found pouring our teenage angst into diaries a source of comfort (and a source of hilarity in later years if, like me, you’ve held on to them – which just goes to show, perspective is all). Therapists working in hospitals, prisons, schools and care homes work with people to encourage them to put their thoughts to paper as a form of catharsis.

It’s not always easy. When I was going through the most upsetting year of my life, a wise friend asked me ‘are you writing?’ I was surprised to find the answer was ‘no’. I couldn’t write, I told her. It was weird. Of course, I scrawled the odd furious diatribe that thankfully never went anywhere (a confessional hangover from my diary days), but creative writing wise, I was empty. I’d lost interest in the activity that was most important to me, and it took a long time to get it back. But I was grateful that its absence had been pointed out, and when I was ready, the page was waiting, like another old friend.

What is it about writing that makes it such great therapy?

Escapism – you can go anywhere in your imagination, in a story. You might not be able to afford that holiday to Thailand that you know would make you feel better, but you can dream it up and you can write it down. You can get away from everyday pressures, even for a short time. You might not get a tan, but you’ll save money, and your subconscious can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality so will probably start to perk up.

You can use your anger, hurt, whatever negative emotions you’re feeling, and turn them into something else. Something good, maybe something that will one day even help someone because they’ll read it and think ‘Oh! I feel like that, too. I’m not alone.’

This is the biggie, for me. It’s all very well writing down the ‘real’ stuff, in diary mode – I still do this, and it’s particularly useful for getting intense emotions off your chest ‘in the moment’, for ordering your thoughts, and for saying all the things you really shouldn’t or can’t make public. But taking real feelings and turning them into fiction: this is where the magic happens. I was thrilled to be given the feedback recently that in my writing, the emotion is ‘right there on the page’ – I hope that’s true and I’m not sure how it’s achieved except that if you face your feelings (sorry Elkie), notice them, and write about them with honesty, you can create something special. My characters aren’t me; their situations are different, their personalities are different, but in a lot of ways, their feelings are real.

Maureen Freely, who taught me Creative Writing at Warwick University, once wrote on a piece of my work: ‘writing well is the best revenge’. Look at it this way: if you’re going to feel shit, you might as well get a good book out of it.

You can make your own ending. In tough times, whatever the cause, the overwhelming feeling can be that of loss of control. In your story, if not in life, everything can turn out just as you choose.

And if someone has really pissed you off, you can always write a thinly-disguised version of them and kill them.

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Reading as a Writer

‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time, or the tools, to write.’ Stephen King, On Writing

I’ve always loved this quote and felt a bit incredulous that anyone would think they can write without reading widely. The benefits of reading have, to me, always been many and obvious, not the least of which is that it improves your spelling and grammar (almost by osmosis), which may not be that important to some people and sometimes makes you unpopular at parties and / or work (no-one likes a pedant), but hey, it matters to me.

(Having just re-read that sentence, I recognise it probably has about half a dozen grammatical errors in it. Great, an excuse to keep reading!)

But above all, I read because I enjoy it. I read as a punter; I’m in it for the entertainment. I’ve set myself a goal this year of reading at least 50 novels (as well as all the non-fiction and the textbooks I’m reading for my counselling course) and, five books in, I’m loving it. I’ve been afraid of reading ‘as a writer’, however, for the following two main reasons:

  • The Inferiority Complex: I’ve touched on this briefly before but when I’m reading a really, really good book, I like to try to forget that I’m a writer myself. Otherwise I find myself in a horrible place somewhere between despair and wild jealousy. The inner monologue goes something like this: “I’ll never write anything this good. I wish I’d written this book. Damn this author for being so bloody good. I am crap. What’s the point? I’m never writing again. I hate this book and this author for being so good.” Which does tend to detract somewhat from one’s reading pleasure.
  • Fear of Unwitting Plagiarism: I’d never deliberately steal or copy someone else’s work. There’s an annoying little goody-two-shoes inside me that would admonish me along the lines of “you’re only cheating yourself”. Besides which, it would be no fun – what’s the point of copying when the whole joy of writing is making something up yourself? But, what if I do it by accident? What if months later I come up with what I think is a great idea, a great line, and it’s not actually mine? Ouch. So, there’s another reason for trying to suspend my writer brain while reading, despite umpteen ‘how to’ books advising me to the contrary: to read critically, to analyse how other writers ‘do it’, and so on.

However, at the weekend I read The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. Now, this isn’t the place for a book review but suffice to say I read it in a single day (admittedly I was recovering from a nasty chest infection so didn’t have the strength to do much else), so you can infer it’s a pretty gripping read.

One of the features of TGOTT is that it’s told from three different narrative perspectives. Each one is unreliable in its own way, each has a different view of events and each has its own voice. I’m planning (as much as I ever plan, see previous posts) that my second novel will be written from four differing points of view (love to set myself a challenge!), so I couldn’t help but put my Writer head on and ask myself: ‘how does she do it?’

I read it as a punter but I’m going to go back to it. I want to understand how Hawkins makes her three narrators sound subtly different (they’re all women in their late twenties / early thirties, and have some features in common, so this must have been tricky. I’m currently plaguing myself as to whether the main character of my Book Two sounds too much like Fiona from Precocious). I want to analyse how she weaves different versions of the same story together to build tension. I want to grasp how she makes very flawed characters if not likable, at least sympathetic, because this is something I’m trying to do.

So I’ve decided from now on that part of my ‘work’ (still feels funny calling it that when I love it so much, but sometimes it is painful and tiring, just like ‘real’ work) will be to read critically; to take notes, even. I’m going to pay particular attention to multiple-narrator books. I will even be brave and re-visit the sublime The Poisonwood Bible (aargh! See: Inferiority Complex, above).

Finally, a word about time, since that’s where we began. Last year, at the height of my ‘busy-ness’ – writing, studying, working, raising a young child, running – many people asked me ‘how do you find the time?’ My response – ‘I don’t sleep much, and I don’t watch much TV’ – was only half tongue-in-cheek. We all have the same number of hours in the day. There will always be things to do that take you away from the thing you really want to do (in my case writing) and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll do those things first (even when they’re really, really boring, like ironing) because the writing feels like an indulgence, a treat that can only be enjoyed once the mundane tasks are done. But the only way to achieve anything is to commit time to it, and usually this means something has to give. Pick the thing that’s of the least benefit to your physical and emotional wellbeing – in my case, this was TV (ironing was a close second but, sigh, that does have to be done) – and do an hour less of it every day. Fill the hour with the reading, writing or whatever else you thought you didn’t have time for.

Those hours add up and I predict you’ll never go back. Well, except for Monday nights, obviously – Broadchurch is on.

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To Plan or Not To Plan?

A month into Novel 2, and my new life as a full-time author, surrounded by scraps of scenes in notebooks and on the laptop, I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s time to start planning.

‘To plan or not to plan’ is a hot topic among my writing friends. The only consensus seems to be there is no consensus. Some people plan (and for plan I read ‘plot’) meticulously, A to Z, scene by scene, and know when they begin exactly where their book is going; others (like me) take a rather more ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ approach and write fragments, in the hope that at some point a pattern will emerge and allow for some stitching together of the fragments into that elusive beast, a plot.

Maybe it depends what genre you’re writing in. I’m not really a ‘plot-driven’ author; I tend to get the characters in my head first, and yes, there’ll be An Idea, or The Thing That Happens To The Character(s) That Causes Other Stuff To Happen (often referred to in self-help writing books, somewhat more pithily, as ‘the inciting incident’), but that’s about it for me, plot-wise. I just let the characters take over and trust that the rest will appear. Stephen King likens it to excavating a fossil, and for me, that’s the biggest joy of writing: when stuff just starts to happen, or the characters start to behave as though they’re independent of me. John Irving, of whom I’m a massive fan, says he always starts a book with the last line, and writes backwards for a while. I find endings about a million times harder to write than openings, so not sure that would work for me – I’d be here, one month into Novel 2, still staring at the blank screen.

This brings me to what I see as the major advantage of the ‘less planned’ approach – you never (well, almost never) get writer’s block. Stuck on chapter two? Write chapter ten! Then, write towards it. It’s a messy way to work, but it helps me.

Having said that, some planning is of course essential. The one (very simple) tip that I found useful when writing Precocious was this: write the numbers 1 to 20 down the side of a page, then fill in roughly the things that might happen in your story, when. There’ll be lots of gaps, but that’s OK. I’ve started doing this for Novel 2 and it’s helping, although I’ve set myself the challenge of 4 different narrative points of view, so have a feeling that what currently exists as a list might end up as something more like a spreadsheet (yawn).

Now, whilst I admit I’m not great at micro-managing the word count, when it comes to planning on a bigger scale, I’m a (relatively) recent and enthusiastic convert.

In June 2012, I woke up on my 36th birthday to this epiphany: ‘I don’t want to be 40 and still be where I am now’. Not literally, physically, of course – I was living in a rented house which, 3 months into the lease, the landlord had announced he was selling out from under me (nice) – so I knew that was unlikely anyway.

What I realised was that my life was not quite what I wanted it to be; I’d recently divorced, and often upheavals in one area of your life cause you to look more critically at the rest. I was disillusioned with a career that paid well but didn’t really offer me any intellectual stimulation or emotional satisfaction. On the other hand, I was terrified of making a leap out of the ‘known’, secure world (company car, private healthcare, share scheme), not least because I was painfully aware I had a small person to support. Any life-changing decisions I made would change his life, too, so were more than doubly important.

At just the right time, a lovely friend (and mentor, I might even say idol, on account of her having escaped the shackles of corporate life herself some years previously) came to see me and helped me to formulate my vague wishes and dreams into what became known as The Four-Year Plan.

I started by listing all possible scenarios, the first of which was ‘stay exactly as you are’, along with all their pros and cons. There were lots of pros to staying as I was – not least the money and security I’ve already mentioned – but the cons were pretty hefty and serious. My scenario 2 was ‘be a full-time writer’: the pros were many and lovely, but the cons were sobering and probably too obvious for me to need to repeat them here. I never genuinely thought scenario 2 would happen, but I needed to put it on paper as a possibility. Scenarios 3 and 4 were more vague and involved possible alternative careers – I wanted to do something to help people, I wanted to get back into education/learning – so I decided to look at options like further ed teaching, setting up my own training business, and so on.

The lovely friend I mentioned helped me to break down The Plan into years, and the first year into months, with action steps. It was quite far into that first year that I stumbled across (courtesy of a magazine interview with a woman who was both an author and a therapist) my potential new life. I would re-train as a psychotherapeutic counsellor (it was possible to do this at weekends, so I could continue bringing in the beans from my day job). I could work for myself, with flexible hours that would allow me to spend more time with my son and more time writing, and I could help people. Bingo!

Two and a half years on and I’m further along and nearer to my goals than I thought I would be back in June 2012. I’m in my second year of counseling training, my first book is coming out later this year and I’m effectively being paid to write the second one. The ‘scenario 2’ that I thought was a pipe dream is perilously close to reality (I say ‘perilously’ because, as with anything wonderful that happens in life – falling in love, having children – it comes with the almost ever-present sense of anxiety that it could at any moment be snatched away. Yes, I know I’m a bit neurotic, but thanks to my studies I’m learning to deal with that!).

A Goal is critical. A Plan (to get to the Goal) is very, very important (alternatively, you could just send your wishes out into the universe, but then you’d be Noel Edmonds). A plan, a plot, a scene-by-scene map, is nice to have but not essential. In writing, as in life, sometimes it’s fun to play it by ear.

So I have The Plan (for life), but I don’t have the plan (for the book). Yet. I’ll just keep scribbling and hope that one reveals itself.

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