Last night, I had a dream about the rewards of writing, and when I woke I thought, I can blog about that. When I turned on my computer in the morning, I discovered this quotation in my Facebook timeline, which was a delightful synchronicity to start the day.
I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy ~ Rabindranath Tagore
Because this was my dream.
I am in a wild, upland place, being taken to see a wonderful plant. I’m given just the briefest glimpse of tall stems with early blooms of the most intense purple, and I realise it’s the colour that I’ve been brought to see. Usually, I am brought to see the indescribable aqua, but this time it’s this purple.
I’ve been writing something, and it’s a test – if I pass, I can come back and see this purple in all its intensity, in full flower. But this time, I have not passed and I will have to go back and start again, and try with another piece of writing.
This is the work, and I’m grateful for it. I don’t feel disheartened by failure, because the work itself is my reward.
It was always like this. I look back at all my writing, so many books I poured my heart and self into that never saw the light of day – real work, hard work – and I never achieved any kind of fame or recognition, but I don’t regret any of it.
Like the family years. I remember the sense of pride I took in the tasks of the household and childcare, which felt important, and a privilege, to be able to live in service to the work. I never felt bored or resentful, or that what I did was unimportant.
I had work, and I wanted to do it as well as I could. Not everybody is given that sense of purpose. I’ve glimpsed the colour, and one day I might see it in full flower, but the glimpse is the gift.
Sometimes, I look fondly back on my early days as an author, when the whole job was simply writing books, and the wheels moved very slowly indeed.
The act of writing was slower because, in the days of typewriters, even a minor change such as choosing a different name for a character could be a long-winded redrafting task, searching through reams of paper armed with a tippex brush.
When the manuscript was finally finished and neatly packaged up, it made its leisurely way to the agent or publisher via the Royal Mail, and some weeks later, their response would eventually come back.
In those days, I was blissfully unaware of sales figures and marketing, publicity and self-promotion, and I certainly didn’t have anything at all to do with the publishing process.
In many ways, being an author twenty years ago was far less stressful, but there are lots of things I love about being an author now:
Word processing has made every stage of writing much easier and quicker. It means I can make manuscripts that look brilliant and are a pleasure to work on from the earliest outline to the final draft.
The internet means I can have frequent contact with readers who follow my blogs or read my books. Their feedback and ideas are both encouraging and inspiring to me.
Self-publishing means I don’t have to have unsold manuscripts languishing on my shelves, out of print books consigned to obscurity or projects I want to work on having to be abandoned because they’re unlikely to find a mainstream publisher.
The only problem is that, while I positively enjoy all the opportunities this new way of being an author presents, there’s an awful lot on my to-do list, and if I have to take unexpected time out because of illness, as has happened recently, things can quickly get out of hand.
On my to-do list right now, I’ve got:
redraft my YA novel Drift from editor’s suggestions
ditto my next adult non-fiction When a Writer Isn’t Writing
write design and cover brief for Drift and When a Writer for designer
redraft my iPhone and iPad app Get Writing! following testers’ suggestions
plan my workshop for the home educated group
write my commissioned article for The Author
pitch further mag articles in time for the September launches of Drift and When a Writer
write blog articles for writinginthehouseofdreams and girlsheartbooks
In Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande points out that it isn’t only themes and characters that emerge from the unconscious mind through writing. She says the unconscious is also ‘the home of form.’
So as well as trusting the flow of ideas if we open our mind by entering the ‘writer’s trance,’ we can also trust that the ideas will organise themselves into the shapes of books and stories.
I definitely find this in my own work.
When I’m writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I start with a sketchy plan and head off from Start in the general direction of Finish, wondering how on earth I’m going to get from one to the other, until suddenly I begin to see the shape of the whole thing in my head like a geometrical figure or a pattern of numbers.
At that point, I become fully engaged. I dash along like a mad thing, joining the dots to make the beautiful shape of the book I’m creating.
This means all my books have a sort of symmetry in the contents – the four Peony Pinkers, for example, all have 17 chapters. Why 17? I’ve no idea, only that that was the number they needed, and I knew each story was on the right track the moment I could see how it could make 17 chapters.
I loved Abi Burlingham’s post Diary of 2014 so I’m shamelessly nicking the idea for the House of Dreams.
At the turning of the New Year, I always look back and take stock of the old, as well as focusing my goals for the year to come. In day-to-day life, it can sometimes feel like work is the most important thing, but when I look back, I can clearly see it isn’t.
So here are my highlights of 2014.
I started the year with a new experiment – two Saturday workshops, ‘Writing the New Year In’ and ‘Under the Ice: Writing in the Chilly Heart of Winter.’ I always enjoy bringing people round my kitchen table to write, and eating together in the middle of a whole day’s writing turned out to be icing on the cake.
I met up with lots of writing friends at the Scattered Authors Conference in Peterborough. Peterborough’s a long way from Cornwall but the drive took me within a hop skip and a jump of Oxford, so I stopped off on the way home to spend the afternoon with my younger daughter.
We had the most delightful evening walk on Wittenham Clumps and supper in a riverside pub.
My birthday is in March, and I love my birthdays, however many I have. All my kids came down to Cornwall, plus their partners, and we had a really fun few days just messing around.
In April, I finally decided enough was enough with trying to get permissions for all the quotations I wanted to use in Writing in the House of Dreams, which was a great relief.
I substituted the ones I hadn’t been able to get permission for with some quotes from older books which were out of copyright. I will never write another book with lots of quotations – I’ve blogged about it here.
I joyfully embarked upon the actual publishing process, finding an editor and a designer for the covers and layouts.
A trip up to London to visit my sons was definitely the highlight of May, and while I was there I stayed one night with some great friends who years ago were my editors, and had lunch the next day with writing friend, Jennie Walters.
Time to shake out the tent for the first camping trip of the year! I met up with some friends down at the far end of Cornwall in Treen. The last time we camped together was a couple of years ago at Scourie, on the North West coast of Scotland.
Fabulous campsite, fabulous beaches, fabulous night at the Minack, just a short walk across Porthcurno beach from the site. I also felt comparatively efficient for a change, because they forgot their tent poles!
July started with the Scattered Authors’ retreat at Charney Manor in Oxfordshire and finished with a glorious couple of baking hot weeks in the tent on Coll and Tiree.
When I’m camping on my own, I find lots of people talk to me, so it can be surprisingly sociable.
On up from Coll and Tiree to Orkney to stay with my older daughter and her partner, before cramming ourselves and all our camping gear into her little car and taking the ferry to Shetland.
Baltasound in Unst, where we were camping, made the national papers for rainfall the first night we were there. But on the upside, we happened to be camping in the garden of a hostel with a warm kitchen and a big washing machine, so we had lots of tea and toast through the small hours with other campers who had also got flooded out.
I got the covers and edits for my next children’s book, The Binding and remembered how much easier it is being published when you’re not doing everything yourself!
My book launch! Three of my children made it, coming down from Orkney and London, and so did my ex husband, from Brighton. Our youngest had just started a new job and unfortunately couldn’t get any time off.
I was really grateful to have them there because launching my child-of-the-heart book into the world turned out to be really emotional.
Some very enjoyable promotional events for Writing in the House of Dreams, including a day in Totnes Library and an evening at View the Gallery, two of my favourite places, run by two of my favourite people.
Then there was a weekend at Daymer Bay with a dozen friends, which was brilliant, and a weekend of sacred and spiritual singing at Cullacott Manor with ace singing teacher Abbie Lathe, where we chanted by candle light for an hour or more between workshops. Magical.
Well, December’s all about Christmas, isn’t it? Family and friends. Looking back over my year I guess it’s pretty clear that those are, as they always have been, my most important things.
When I started this post, I was intending to tell you about the highs and lows of my working year, but you already know about that if you’ve been following my blog.
I’m not sorry I put so much time and effort into learning about self-publishing. I think it will free up and enable my writing from here on in, because I won’t have to be so tied to trying to please the market. I can be more adventurous.
But I feel very frustrated that I’ve only had a few months in the whole of the year when I was able to fully immerse myself in new writing.
I can’t wait to get back to it in 2015.
Thank you for visiting the House of Dreams this year. May 2015 bring you lots of happiness and new creative adventures.
It’s easy to fall in love with writing, but can you take it to the next level?
A lot of people love the idea of writing, and hold it in their heart for years as ‘a one day when I’ve got time’ dream. And when they engage, perhaps in workshops or inspired by a book such as Writing down the Bones by Nathalie Goldberg or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, writing does not disappoint.
Because it really is exhilarating to discover that all you have to do is open the door, and ideas will come pouring through. Characters, settings, stories… it’s astonishing and wonderful what you find inside that you never even knew was there.
This is the honeymoon period. It’s bright, fun and exciting, but it doesn’t last forever. You can abandon it for a while and then start all over again, with another course, another book, loving the romance but not committing, or you can surrender to it fully, and fall properly in love.
Love is not easy. As Khalil Gibran says in The Prophet, ‘Even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.’
When you fall in love with writing, just as when you fall in love with another person, your centre of gravity changes. You are not the only important thing. You are willing to learn, to strive and to make sacrifices in the service of your love.
Loving your writing means making yourself the best possible writer that you can be. It means studying and practising all the skills of writing, so that you can properly honour the wonderful flow of ideas you have found.
Sometimes it might mean giving up things you really liked – ‘killing your darlings’ – if a clever image you were pleased with doesn’t sit well in the larger piece, for example, or if a descriptive passage you’ve worked really hard on has got in the way of the action.
It means curbing your annoying habits, such as using too many abstract nouns or adverbs, or peppering your text with a few favourite words. What you like is not important; you want to do what the writing needs.
Writing is a labour of love – labour and love, both. When you have setbacks, as every writer does – a book idea that doesn’t work after months and months of trying, a rejection from a publisher or agent, an e-book that’s barely sold a copy – it’s only your love for the art and craft of writing that stops you walking away and giving up completely.
I’ve had times when I’ve felt like packing it in, but writing always brings me back. It’s part of who I am now, not just a thing I do. As Khalil Gibran says, ‘think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.’
What is your relationship with writing? Would you like to commit yourself more fully? Would you like to be able to walk away?
Just after Christmas, when I had finished my story set on a remote island, I had a brief hiatus, so I asked for a dream.
I’m in Cunningsburgh, in Shetland, but the coast is completely different. Instead of the wide flat apron of land around the voe, it’s high and mountainous.
We go to the top of the cliffs and start our familiar walk, down the narrow path which clings to the side of the steep slope down to the sea. We normally make this a circular walk, but when we reach the water and look up at the path ahead, it looks too long and hazardous. So we double back the way we came, and return to the top once again.
When I wrote the dream down, I knew I’d dreamt about this place before, and done the walk in other dreams; I also remembered that it almost always coincided with this stage in my writing, when I had finished one MS and not yet started another.
After I finish a book, I need a fallow time to rest and recover, refocus and regroup. I play with lots of ideas and then, just when I’m starting to feel impatient, one of them grabs me.
My dream of going down to the water reminds me of an idea I’ve read in books on writing, that writers need to take time out and ‘go down to the well’ to keep refreshing their ideas. Julia Cameron talks about it in her ‘writer’s date’ suggestion in ‘The Artist’s Way.’
Julia Cameron recommends taking time out every week, but I find my writing pattern is such that when I’m in the flow I just want to write 24:7 till I reach the end, and then take a chunk of time out to recover (and get some sleep!)
After this dream, and a period of rest, what eventually grabbed me was a return to the world of Peony Pinker, the protagonist of my latest published series. I guess that’s why I doubled back in my dream.
It’s only through writing down your dreams and noting alongside them the main things that are happening in your waking life, that you start to see patterns and parallels emerging. Certain themes and situations in your dreamworld may become familiar, as they reflect recurring themes and situations in your waking life.
I’ve just delivered my follow-up story to Peony Pinker, ‘Me and my big mouth, by Maddy Monday,’ so I won’t be surprised if I find myself walking back down to the water in my dreams these next few weeks.
If you’re a dreamer, are you aware of a recurring link between a dream situation and a waking one in your own life?
If you’re a writer, how often do you ‘go down to the well’ – for a few hours every week, or for longer periods between writing projects?
I work and teach in the practice school of writing. This means that rather than studying technique and trying to apply it, as we mostly learn to do in mainstream education, we start from just doing it and allowing our own unique style to develop through practice.
Obviously, this approach depends upon doing lots of writing and, as no-one keeps going for long with things they don’t enjoy, the first rule of writing is enjoyment.
If you can’t enjoy it, it’s better to take a step back and wait until the mood or the ideas or the psychological space for writing comes back.
Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy ~ Khalil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’
The paradoxical effect of this approach is that being prepared to wait means you never have to. When the impulse is pleasure, work is alligned with instinct, and you are flowing with life.
This is not to say you don’t have to work at your writing, but only that as long as you’re writing things which fully engage you, it’s work you want to do and therefore, however hard it may sometimes be, it never feels like a chore.
And what is it to work with love? It is to weave a cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth ~ Khalil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’
You may have noticed that although I normally blog every Wednesday, I’ve skipped a few weeks since Christmas. This is because I’ve been immersed in my work-in-progress and would have resented spending time on other writing.
I didn’t want to short-change myself, or you, or the spirit of writing by publishing something which felt like homework. So I took a break last week and the usual thing happened – lots of new ideas came into my head which are engaging enough for me to want to set aside other writing for an hour or so and explore them in the House of Dreams.
The award-winning author Susan Price and I are exchanging emails at the moment for a future entry on the ‘A conversation with’ page on her blog. By a delightful synchronicity, her latest response was a perfect illustration of the blog post I had just written last week, and she has agreed to let me publish it here.
There was a time in my life, when I was denying that ‘other’in my head, when I think my subconscious very deliberately worked against me.
I would say something quite innocent to someone – ‘Hello, how are you?’ for instance – and hear myself saying it in a tone, or with an inflexion that completely changed the meaning and made it insulting or aggressive. I had absolutely no conscious intention of insulting anyone, and would be as astonished as the person I’d just offended – but, of course, what could I say? – ‘I didn’t mean it like that! – That came out wrong!’
Sometimes people were polite, but I’d just bitten their heads off for no good reason. It was impossible to explain that the voice they’d just heard wasn’t mine. They would have thought I was mad. I occasionally thought I was mad.
I was at logger-heads with what I now call ‘my daemon’ because I was refusing to acknowledge that it existed, and so it fought me all the way. I would be writing something and would decide to make some change to the plot. What I now call the daemon would object, but I would refuse to listen because I didn’t recognise its voice. I put it down to a mere passing thought, and brushed it off because at that time I was certain that there was only one voice in my head: the ‘I’ voice, which I would now call ‘the editor’.
The daemon took its revenge by withdrawing. The piece of writing I was working on would turn to stone, or dry up, or fall over dead – whatever image you want to use. I had to learn that with writing – or, I think, any art – the daemon does the real work! The Editor may make some great editing decisions, once the real work is finished, but shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with the daemon.
A vengeful, spurned daemon is a dangerous thing, I think. Mine not only stymied my every effort at writing, it played those tricks to embarrass me. It was ingenious at finding ways to make such remarks as,“Yes, please,” and “Yes, I’ve heard of that,” nasty and cutting.
I had to learn that talk of ‘muses’ and ‘daemons’ was not the arty-farty nonsense I thought it, but simply a way of talking about something that we don’t quite understand, and don’t have an everyday vocabulary for. I began to solve problems with writing by summarising the problem and saying to the daemon,‘Solve this for me.’ And it did! The more I trusted it, the faster and more inventively it solved the problems.
I started to give way to it. If it insisted that a particular character should – or shouldn’t – die, I no longer argued, but humbly worked with it to make it so. I discovered that the more I worked with and trusted the daemon, the friendlier it became. It stopped playing those tricks on me!
As a result, I paid it more attention and ‘heard’ it more clearly. I started to see how a piece of writing that I’d ‘made up as I went along’ had sub-texts planted in it, and other subtleties that ‘I’ hadn’t written – so who had? And then I read Kipling’s description of his ‘daemon’ and knew what he was talking about right away.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this taster, watch out for our full conversation on Susan’s blog in the coming weeks. You may also like to check out her ‘Muse Monday’ guest post on Katherine Roberts’ lovely blog, Reclusive Muse, where she descibes her daemon and quotes the passage from Rudyard Kipling she refers to here.
lyndart wrote, ‘I have difficulty giving myself permission to let those creative juices flow… Any suggestion for a topic?’
You can use any random word such as ‘trees’ or ‘motor-bikes’ or ‘dinner-time’ for a writing prompt, and there are many sites which offer a fresh suggestion every day. I do this myself for warm-ups with groups, giving a random word and asking them to write freely about it, keeping the pen moving on the paper even if at times they find themselves writing things like, ‘I have absolutely nothing else to say on this topic, I don’t know why I’m doing this,’ until their mind finds its way back to the theme.
But the very best prompts for daily practice are the ones you come up with for yourself because, like dream images, whatever emerges spontaneously from your own relaxed mind will have emotional resonance and personal significance for you right now, whether it’s immediately obvious or not.
To find images which are active in you at the moment, sit comfortably with your notepad or laptop, close your eyes and take a few slow, steady breaths. Clear your mind.
Think of an object – the first thing that comes to you. Don’t censor or try to find something ‘better.’ Write for five minutes, stream-of-consciousness, without pausing. Change direction when one stream runs out, allowing yourself to go where your thoughts take you, even if you stray from your starting-out point.
If you prefer, you can write a list of the first five things you think of, then choose one from your list to write about. You can write for ten or fifteen or even twenty minutes in this way if that’s your daily practice.
Another way of finding prompts that have particular resonance for you is beginning with a phrase such as ‘I remember’ or ‘I wish’ or ‘I love’ or ‘I hate’ because these will take you immediately into areas that you care about.
I often use this kind of prompt in workshops, especially about childhood, which is the living root of every life. I give a topic such as ‘my mother’s kitchen’ or ‘my childhood bedroom.’ I’ve written about this on the wonderful girlsheartbooks blog, ‘What was your favourite toy when you were little?’
The key with daily writing practice, as with all creative endeavours, is pleasure. Writing about themes and topics which have personal resonance is always pleasurable and over time, it will deepen your understanding of yourself as a writer.
Have you got any suggestions for good writing prompts? Please share!