Tag Archives: writing career

What would you write if you were writing your life?

A friend emailed me this week about a series of workshops I’m doing in March-April called ‘Writing your Life.’ She said,  ‘I suppose some people might have had lots of exciting adventures they want to tell other people about. For me it’s more about my internal life…’

This reminded me of a dream I had just after the New Year, when I was planning my writing and other work projects for 2014. Specifically, I was thinking I should probably stop messing about with self-publishing my dream book before I actually started spending money on it, and concentrate on writing some proposals for books that might find a publisher and bring some money in.

In my dream, I was walking briskly along a tarmac path towards the station, in a stream of other people who were all wearing suits. I noticed the person in front of me was Deborah Meaden, the millionaire businesswoman from Dragon’s Den.

The path rose to the left over a long wide bridge, but I saw a little dirt track dipping away just before it, and made a diversion. Several people rushing by onto the bridge called me and told me I was going the wrong way and I would miss the train, but by then I could see that the path led down to a long sandy beach.

The sea was coming in and the space under the bridge was under water, but I could paddle along the very edge, and as I did so, I suddenly saw hundreds of brightly-coloured fish swimming around. Stopping to watch them, I noticed there were other creatures swimming in the shallow water too – little crocodiles and lizards, hippos and tiny elephants.

I stood there transfixed, overwhelmed by feelings of wonder and gratitude.

 

Everyone’s life is particularly lit up by different areas of experience. For me, like my friend, it’s the inner world that feels most exciting. In dreams and imagination I’ve been to wonderful places and seen amazing things, and those travels are as vivid in my memory as other people’s memories of travels in the outer world.

One of the memoirs I’ve found most gripping is Jung’s ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’ and the memoir strand in my own ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is very much the story of my dreaming, which is the great adventure of my life.

Inner or outer, the adventure’s the thing. Writing is a way of seeing, and understanding where the power that drives your life is, and the joy. I love that some people will bring ‘lots of exciting adventures’ they’ve had in the outer world to these workshops, and others the thoughts and imaginings that have lit up their life from within.

What would you write if you were writing your life?

A vocation of unhappiness?

The prolific Belgian author, Georges Simenon, famously said, ‘Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.’

Writing is certainly a vocation. Many professional authors have been doing it for years on top of the nine to five before they start to make any money from it, and most say they’d continue to write even if their income from it completely dried up.

Like any other vocation, this hunger to create comes at a cost; it takes time and energy away from social life and other interests, and puts personal challenges upon us which we might otherwise prefer to avoid, such as developing the ability to deal with criticism and rejection.

But because it’s a vocation, that inner drive enables us to overcome our setbacks and difficulties and keeps us moving forward towards a growing sense of doing what we were born to do.

I used to think that dreaming was a vocation of unhappiness too. It felt like a compulsion which had me in its grip. Over the years, it has taken me to all sorts of places where I’ve felt confused and frightened, and out of my depth. It has given me insights and information I did not want to know.

Ignorance is bliss, and dreams are a road to understanding. Writing is hard, and for most of us it will not lead to a life of material abundance. But if you have a vocation you have to find and follow your inner compass, because that is the only way to achieve the supreme happiness of coming home to the self.

When did you come out as a writer?

Out and proud now – it wasn’t always so!

A friend of mine was really pleased with herself the last time I saw her because, after a lifetime of writing, she had finally stepped into that space and owned it. She had told an events organiser, ‘I’m a local poet.’

It reminded me of another friend who had written several novels which absolutely no-one else knew about. She had only told me because she wanted my advice about how to find a publisher.

Coming out as a writer doesn’t sound as if it should be hard, but I think for many writers it can be. We may have to do it bit-by-bit, our family and close friends first, before going public enough to maybe join a writing group or sign up for some courses. Having confessed we’ve been writing, there’s another coming-out to do if we decide to try and be published.

Since I had wanted to be an author from a very early age, my family always knew, and I actually foisted my teenage efforts on school friends for a penny a chapter. So the fact that I wrote was never something I felt shy about confessing, and when the time came for me to try and earn a living from it, I was happy for everyone to know.

I reckoned that otherwise they’d just have thought I was a slacker anyway, sitting around at home when all my children were in school or playschool. On the whole, it seemed better to risk looking like someone with unrealistic expectations, wasting a lot of time and effort which was doomed to failure, than someone who wasn’t making any effort at all.

It came as a complete shock to me, therefore, when my first books came out, to find that I suddenly felt exposed. It wasn’t only my family and friends who knew any more – now everyone would know, and what’s more, they could read what I’d written.

I couldn’t understand at all why I was having such a problem – I mean, wasn’t that the point of being an author, to have people read what you’d written? So when I found myself on a psychodrama day with a group of counsellors, I told them I was totally up for exploring the reasons why.

In psychodrama, I went straight into a cave with all my writing and flatly refused to come out! 

In a cave… and not coming out!

It turned out that the essence of my anxiety was about having things out there that I’d written, which I might find embarrassing further down the line. This did happen, a decade later, when I was revising my adults’ book on bullying for a new edition. I had completely changed my mind on the subject of forgiveness, and I realised that there might be any number of earlier opinions in others of my books that I’d long ago left behind in my life.

I was reassured to read, in John Fowles’ preface to a new edition of his first book, ‘The Magus,’ how he had wrestled with just this difficulty. Much of what was in the book, he no longer felt or even liked very much. He said he considered doing a total rewrite, because he felt embarrassed about what he now could see were the book’s shortcomings.

But in the end, he decided to leave the text just as it was, saying

All artists have to range the full extent of their own lives freely. The rest of the world can censor or bury their private past. We cannot, and so have to remain partly green till the day we die… callow green in the hope of becoming fertile green.

 A lot of the books I enjoy reading are essays, memoirs and opinion pieces, and I like writing that kind of book too. Perhaps that’s why this was my particular stumbling block, when it came to coming out as a writer.

An enemy of self-reliance is consistency – we feel we can’t contradict our former ideas and utterances – but that’s just conforming to other people’s idea of who we are based on historical evidence. We think we may be misunderstood – but so what? We need to live and grow in the present, not be tied down by the past.  Ralph Waldo Emerson

The book I’ve just written about dreams is full of my own ideas, experiences and opinions, and now I’m writing this blog… I guess you could say that I’m over it now!

If you’re a writer, did you find it hard to tell people about your writing, or writing ambitions? Did you have a particular block when it came to going public?

How a broken toilet seat solved a conundrum

In the four or five weeks since I delivered ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ to my agent, my life has not been writing-friendly.

Between the nightmare chaos of having builders in to fix the roof and fit a new bathroom, and the fun chaos of lots of visitors, there simply hasn’t been time for work.

What I had been planning to do after everything quietened down last weekend was decorate the rooms where the leaky roof had done most damage, but I couldn’t face it – I just wanted to get back to my writing.

The problem was, I couldn’t decide what to write. I had two projects in development – a children’s series to follow my Peony Pinker books, and an adults’ book similar to ‘Writing in the House of Dreams.’ Both of these ideas felt interesting and exciting, in completely different ways.

My heart said do the latter, even though I didn’t have much more than a bunch of vague ideas and a few scribbled notes.  My head said do the former, because I had already written a full synopsis and half of the first story, and my agent had given it the thumbs-up. So I was faced with a conundrum.

I still hadn’t made up my mind the next morning, when my brand new toilet seat broke, dragging me away from my just-getting-back-to-normal life and dumping me back in the local B and Q, where I seemed to have spent most of the previous month.

I felt tetchy. I’d paid nearly thirty quid for that toilet seat, and you could have fashioned better fixings out of tin foil. I felt even more tetchy when the local store insisted that, as I’d bought it at a different branch an hour’s drive away, that’s where I would have to take it back to.

I bought a second toilet seat, tossed the faulty one in the boot, and set off for home. But it felt such an irritating waste of a morning that I took a diversion and drove out to the holy well at Saint Clether.

The holy well is a magical place, full of history and mystery, nestled in a beautiful valley. In my experience, it isn’t possible to stay confused, angry or upset for long, within its ancient walls.

St Clether holy well

As I tramped along the path, I suddenly remembered how I had come to the well before, when I was faced with exactly the same writing dilemma. My head had been telling me try and get a contract for another children’s series, but my heart wanted to throw common sense to the winds and focus on my dream book for a while.

The version of my dream book I was working on at that time was called ‘Pomegranate’, after the myth of Persephone. When I got to the well, I found lots of people celebrating the celtic festival of harvest, and among the coins and crystals left as offerings in the wall, someone had managed to perch a pomegranate.

I could not have been more astonished if the skies had opened and the voice of God boomed out, ‘Write “Pomegranate!”‘

I did, and I had never regretted that decision. So now I was alert for any signs or portents that might give me a heads-up this time. I went into the little chapel, picked up a candle to light, and just stood there. The working title of my current adults’ book idea is ‘Sixty Candles.’

When it comes to writing, I find that the heart usually does get its own way in the end, but often not before a fair few steps in the opposite direction, unless Life gives me a shove (I’ll be blogging about signs and portents next week)

If the toilet seat hadn’t broken, I wouldn’t have had to go to B and Q. If the local store had been willing to exchange it, I wouldn’t have felt so cross that I needed a calming diversion.

If I hadn’t gone to the well, I wouldn’t have remembered the last time I was faced with this exact conundrum. I probably would have gone on dithering between my two projects for weeks, instead of being able to throw myself whole-heartedly into one of them.

So my broken toilet seat solved a conundrum. What had seemed a completely irritating, bad thing, triggered a very positive train of events.

Have you ever had a bad experience that turned out to have been a good thing?

Nothing is ever good or bad, but thinking makes it so ~ Shakespeare

Death and the dream book

Well, I didn’t see it coming. When I finally finished my dream book last week, I was planning to break open the bubbly, but I just felt bereft.

Before I was ever published, I knew I wanted to write a book about dreams, and for twenty years, that book has been the heart of my writing life, at first a secret addiction, later an open obsession.

There have been various versions along the way, non-fiction, autobiography, novel, work-book… each new one rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the one before. I liked them all – my agents liked them too – but none of them felt exactly right.

The dream book defined me to myself, as a writer, far more than my growing body of children’s books. I’ve loved it, felt impatient with it, hated it in equal measure. I’ve wished I could put it down and get on with my  proper writing career.

And now I can. It feels like a death, but all week, I’ve been dreaming about babies. This reminds me of the Death card in Tarot, which is sometimes called Death and Rebirth.

Death in Tarot is deep change. As one situation ends, a new one begins. I don’t know what kind of writer I will be now that a third of my writing life won’t be channelled off into this dream book any more.

When I blogged about it before, I discovered that not every writer has a ‘dream book.’ https://jenalexanderbooks.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/does-every-writer-have-a-dream-book/ Although at times it has felt like a curse, I feel very blessed that I’ve had mine.

So farewell and thank you, grand passion of my writing life, and hello and welcome dream-babies of whatever is coming next.

Bubbly wine, anyone?

Next week – great excitement in the House of Dreams – Katherine Roberts will be calling in on her ‘Sword of Light’ blog tour to tell us how a workshop session she did with me helped her to find the story

‘Talent is not at all unusual, my dear…’

When I was first trying to establish myself as an author, I came upon a quotation from the theatrical agent, Peggy Ramsay, which I copied out and stuck on my study wall. She said that talent was not at all unusual; what was unusual was having the character to develop it.

I was really struck by that, because the biggest struggles of my early career were not in developing my writing skills – I had been writing about pretty much everything that happened in my life since I was six – diaries, poems, stories – and my voice and style were already quite well-developed.

But the process of moving from being someone who loved writing to someone who could earn their living from it was very character-building for me. Here are five qualities I had to develop in myself.

1 – Self-belief, aka a thick skin

You won’t last five minutes in this business if you’re sensitive to criticism or can’t take rejection. Way back when I was starting out, one of the agents I approached with a sample of my writing replied, ‘I regret to inform you that we only accept clients who either have some writing ability or something interesting to say.’ See what I mean?

2 – Patience

The wheels of publishing move exceeding slow. Nuff said.

3 – Flexibility

If you can’t sell an idea in one form, you may be able to sell it in another. Most of the ideas I couldn’t sell have turned out to be recyclable in the fulness of time (patience again!)

4 – Trust

Lots of writers have to learn to trust their creative process, but that’s never been an issue for me. Tapping into dreams every night makes you aware of the abundance of stories going on all the time beneath the surface, which can never dry up. However, I have found it challenging to trust I’ll stay solvent on such a haphazard and sporadic income. 

5 – Luck

You might say, what’s luck got to do with character? It’s random, right? But you make your own luck, to some extent. You have to be able to create and spot opportunities, and willing to consider any door that opens up, even if it’s not one you might have considered before.

 I know from my workshops that talent is not unusual. Everybody has a unique voice, and an interesting story to tell. I feel really humbled by some of the writing people produce in half an hour, round my kitchen table.

Trying to make a career of it is different. Not everyone who loves writing will want to embark on that path. If you have done so, what qualities did you have to find in yourself? If you are trying to, what qualities do you think you will need?

5 blogging tips you might have missed – I did!

It’s nearly four months since I started this blog, so I’ve been taking stock. Fortunately, I’ve just found a brilliant pair of posts on Anne R Allen’s blog on how to, and how not to blog, specially aimed at authors who’ve started or are planning to start blogging. You can read it yourself here: http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2011/12/how-to-blog-beginners-guide-for-authors.html

I’ll be changing my ways from now on, based on five of Anne’s top blogging tips that I missed.

  1. I’ll be posting more regularly. I’m going for once-a-week, on Wednesdays. I find it hard to keep up with blogs that have new posts every other day, but I go cold on the ones that seem to have gone cold on me. Once a week suits me as a follower, so I hope it will please my blog-followers too. This is my first Wednesday post!
  2. I’ll be doing more linking (you’ll notice I started this post as I mean to go on!) What’s social networking, without sharing the good stuff? I’ll also put my link in Anne’s comments, and make more comments on the other blogs I read, so that their followers might click through to the House of Dreams.
  3. My blog titles might involve numbers (yep – starting as I mean to go on again) There might also be a sprinkling of bullet points within my posts, if I remember to put them in.
  4. I might make my posts a bit longer. They’ve been coming in around the 300 word mark, which is well under half the average for blog posts. But then again, I might not. I like to write lean – possibly in part because I’m not a patient reader myself.
  5. While taking on board all the great advice out there, I’ll go on ploughing my own path. Blogging is creative writing, and half the fun is finding out what it’s got in mind, and watching how it evolves. (Yes, I am one of those authors who DETEST writing synopses)

Doh – that’s all I’ve got to say and guess what? It’s 300 words. I rest my case!

Now, because finishing with a question is another tip I kind of missed, or rather got in a quite haphazard way, I’m going to close with a question for you, O welcome visitor to the House of Dreams – What are your top tips for successful blogging? 

More people want to write than to read – why?

First of all, I must confess I can’t remember where I read that there are more would-be writers than readers, so it’s more of an eye-catching title than a statistical fact. But having said that, it doesn’t sound too preposterous to me.

My kitchen table - ready for a writing group

Writing courses are springing up all over the country, from major universities to my kitchen table; online writers’ resources are increasing daily, and in National Novel Writing Month alone participants have already produced a staggering  2,755,787,833 words this year, and counting  http://nanowrimo.org/

You would think the main reason why so many people are interested in writing is because they’d like to be published, perhaps with a view to changing career, or to making a fortune out of a single best-selling book and going to live in the Seychelles. This is certainly true for some.

But I think for a lot of people who want to write, being published is not the main driver. It’s something more primitive and profound. People come to writing because they want to discover and tell their stories, not necessarily to the world, but to each other, like tribal elders gathered under a tree, or children making up games in the playground.

I think there’s a yearning also, in such a material world, to connect with deeper layers of the self, and explore the mysteries of the inner world.

What creative activities of every kind offer is an experience of total absorption and flow, and an opportunity for spiritual experience and community in a very secular world.

I’d love to hear your views, if you’re a teacher or participant in creative writing courses.

Does every writer have a dream book?

An early version was called 'The pink jacket'
An early version of my dream book was called 'The Pink Jacket'

When I came to writing after my last child started school, I experienced a sense of homecoming, as if this was the thing I had been born to do.

My first goal was to be a jobbing writer, someone who could turn their hand to anything, and I found the ideal place to learn that in educational writing, because there the brand was the publisher rather than the author, which meant I was free to try my hand at lots of different kinds of writing, both fiction and non fiction.

The two or three years I spent writing full-time for various educational publishers felt like a brilliant apprenticeship, and I carried the things I had learnt there into the next stage of my writing career, moving back into the high street as a children’s self-help author.

My 8 children’s self-help books were a mix of stories, jokes, quizzes, activities and ideas. They have all received 5-star reviews and enthusiastic reader-feedback. However, I soon learnt that earning your living from non fiction was even harder than from fiction.

So I wrote two children’s fiction series, the 6-book ‘Car-mad Jack’ and my new series, ‘By Peony Pinker.’ I feel very lucky to have had such a long, happy and varied writing career.

But underneath it all, from way back before I was ever published, I’ve always known I wanted to write an adult book about dreams, and for a couple of months in every year, before the latest advance runs out, I have returned to this labour-of-love book, experimenting with it at different times as a novel, workbook, memoir and non-fiction.

This year, I decided to finally put everything else on hold, and actually commit to finishing my dream book. I am experiencing even more of a sense of homecoming than when I first began to write. Not only, ‘Writing is what I was born to do,’ but also, ‘This is the book I was born to write.’

I wonder, does every author have a dream book – the special one they feel they were born to write?