The urge to purge

We are moving house at the moment. Slowly, over several weeks. It’s odd trying to carry on writing in a sea of chaos, boxes, bubble wrap, and piles of things marked ‘Why did we ever buy this’; ‘Gifts that we hate’; ‘Take to dump immediately’; or ‘To be accidentally-on-purpose lost in transit’ (all Himself’s football memorabilia is in this pile but I suspect he’s on to me). In some ways I’m like a cat or one of those gorillas who builds a nest to sleep in each night. I’m very affected by my home and I don’t like uprooting myself. I’ll be in a state of heightened anxiety until the pictures are hung on new walls and I know exactly where to find that specific book I need. But I can’t afford to take a week out of writing just now, I need to keep going. Is this a sign I’m taking it all more seriously? Last time we moved, two years ago, I’m almost certain I didn’t write a word for weeks. So I’ll have to manage, even if it means squatting among boxes with my laptop.

In other ways I quite like the excitement of shaking things up. When I was little I loved rearranging my bedroom furniture. It felt like a whole new room – a whole new life, even, possibly. I like looking through old things, taking stock, clearing out. I wish it was easier to do this in my head. At times like this I’m seized with an overwhelming urge to purge – get rid of those trousers that never suited me, shred the old bills, dump all the gadgets and saucepans and CDs that never get used. Equally I sometimes get urges to delete or throw away old writing – it’s no good, I’m never going to use it, it’s broken and stained and frankly, an eyesore. So why not ditch it?

Sadly, over-zealous spring-cleaning can lead to regret. I’ve always felt bad about selling some of my course books after university (Understanding French Vocabulary was a veritable treasure-trove of idiom). This time in moving I’ve already lost my E-reader cable, which I suspect Himself accidentally-on-purpose (playing me at my own game) threw away because I asked him to chuck the many, many leads we didn’t use (I perhaps didn’t ask him quite so nicely as that, but still…). Likewise I deeply regret losing anything I ever wrote, whether through the many upheavals and country relocations of the past ten years, or deciding to purge it myself, or failing to back up old laptops and floppy discs (remember them?). I miss it all, every word, no mater how dreadful. If I’d taken them to a charity shop for words, I’d be round there now buying them back. I wrote all through my teens, awful angst-ridden diaries and risible imitations of whatever I was reading at that time, from historical sagas to comic fantasy. However terrible– and it would be terrible- I would love to have it to look over. There’s good ideas even in dreadful writing, and it’s always interesting to view the strata of your growth.

So maybe we need some middle ground between hording and purging. I’m moving now to my first owned house, and hope to be there for some time. I hope I’ll write a lot there, and only add to the box of tatty notebooks I’m already toting round with me. Perhaps we should all have a yearly spring-clean of all our old ideas and titles – junk some, realising they were laughably bad. But also find some forgotten gems, spruce them up, and hang them on the wall?

Don’t tell me not to write, I simply gotta/Can’t help it but it’s fine, I’m not a nutter

(to the tune of ‘Don’t rain on my parade’)

I’ve been thinking a lot about a euphemism that’s now much in vogue: ‘managing expectations’. This seems to be to be simply another way to say crushing your dreams, raining on your parade, telling you not to fly (when you simply gotta) etc.

Actually, I don’t want anyone to manage my expectations. It was this managing that kept me from trying to be a writer for the past twenty years. If we could manage our expectations, we would never be writers in the first place.

I went to a publishing event last year where I very much felt my expectations were being managed. I was excited, as it was my first-ever writing event, and I’d paid £60 to be there. The talks, while all very interesting and useful, swung between two poles of: don’t get your hopes up now, and: if your hopes are irretrievably up and not coming down, then here are some tips. Well, mine were up there. They were more up than UP, the lovely film where the house gets lifted by balloons. So of course I decided the doom and gloom didn’t apply to me. I imagine everyone else did the same.

I’ve seen expectations being managed a lot since then, in books, on blogs, and at other events, where they want to stress that the vast majority of us in the audience are never going to make it. And if you do make it, no one’s buying books, so you won’t make any money. So don’t dream of being a writer, making any money, or even of doing it as a career. (Although they don’t want to crush your dreams so much you’ll give up and go home and not pay them £60 to attend a day on publishing in future.)

You know what? Plenty of people do get publishing contracts. And some people enough to live off. Some do even make loadsamoney. It has to be someone. Why shouldn’t it be you? You can up your odds enormously by working hard, being open to criticism, and getting good ideas. Most of us have a lot of time on earth – for example I personally have seen every episode of Friends at least ten times (feels like ten thousand). At 10 series, 24 episodes, half an hour each, that’s several months of my life just watching Ross and Rachel not get together. And don’t even get me started on Hollyoaks.

I believe my point is that you do have a whole ocean of time out there in which to work at your writing. Think of all the pointless dates, the days spent waiting for boys to call, or not call. I should have co-habited years ago! (As well as being handy for getting the shopping done and car fixed, cohabitation is excellent for eroding all that will he/won’t he time-wasting. Unless you have a fiery passionate liaison like Sylvia and Ted, in which case it will be useful for lots of angst-drenched material.) I’ve spent several lifetimes just waiting for delayed trains. Decades in pointless meetings about the stationery budget. Years doing classes in other topics than the one that actually interested me. If being a writer is what you really want, you have acres of time, buckets full of energy, and a whole lot of margin for error in getting there.

So make the time. Do the crime. (Don’t write in rhyme.) It will all be fine. And don’t let anyone crush your dreams. OK, you may not make it. But if you don’t even try, you absolutely, definitely will never make it. And I say this as someone who was afraid to try for years.

So, that publishing event I went to was last summer. I sat in the audience feeling alternatively flooded with excitement and plunged into doom. Six months after that event I had an agent and was getting interest from publishers. It CAN happen. Don’t give up (unless you are barking mad and refuse to take any feedback, advice, or criticism of any sort – but if you are you won’t listen to anything I say anyway).

On writing classes

In this post I want to write about writing classes. They are a new phenomenon for me. For years – I don’t know why – I resisted investing any money in my writing. I went to all manner of other night classes (Spanish, Chinese, philosophy…) but not the one thing I’d always wanted to do with my life. I really can’t remember why that was. The idea of doing an MA had always been in my head, but I was leaning more towards International Development, or something ‘useful’. Something that might help my career.  Which as it turned out wasn’t a career I even wanted.  I think I felt writing was too frivolous to invest thousands in. I thought I would never succeed, so why try?

Now that I’ve actually been doing well, I wonder what took me so long. The class I go to is only about £100 a term and I get so much out of it. The first time you send your work out to strangers, it’s like those dreams where you’ve gone into school naked (or is that just me?). It’s terrifying to be so stripped raw. But the next time is much easier, and the next. In my short experience, everyone is kind. After all, it’ll be them next week, and none of us is perfect.

We’ve had some invigorating discussions – is it possible to masturbate with a severed hand? Do boys of 13 even know how to have sex?  – and come up with the concept of ‘IPDs’, or irrelevant personal disclosures. You know, when someone makes a comment that sends eyebrows skyward all round the class – I’m sure we all do it at some point. We’ve had all manner of issues over emails, documents, and printing. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve gone ‘YUCK’. I suppose an MA must be the same, but with more time, and longer together as a group. But is it worth seven grand? Still haven’t worked that one out.

We’ve also had some sad moments, some downright scary, some hilarity. And our post-pub sessions are one of the highlights of my week. Being a writer, even an aspiring one, is lonely and unrewarding and often feels stupid. It’s great to be around people who, if you asked them their greatest dream, wouldn’t say money or fame or Caribbean holidays, like most of the population. They’d just say to get a publishing deal (which would hopefully lead to those other things, right?) It’s great not to seem crazy when you talk about your characters and how changing their name would be agony, or how they start to do things you hadn’t quite imagined, or whether you write sex scenes that cut straight to ‘So, the next morning….’ (I do) or go into eye-popping detail about caresses and, you know, texture and stuff (as others do).

My point is I wish I’d done it much sooner. And if anyone is wondering whether it’s worthwhile, do it NOW. If you’re serious, if you’re ready to give and receive feedback, you’ll never regret it.

Just remember to send everything in RTF, or all manner of hell will break loose.

You will always find me in the library at parties

All this talk of libraries makes me nostalgic. I’m not the only one, it seems – last week my local had a queue ten people deep. Is it a sign that, in fact, we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone? Or that in a town where one of our main bookshops just closed down, we’re starting to show our appreciation?  I personally needed no reminders to appreciate the library –the first thing I do when I move somewhere new is join one, and I’m always amazed by how good English libraries are. I grew up in N Ireland and it seemed we rarely got new books – perhaps the budget was going on policing instead? Guns not books. Will everywhere be like this now?

My first library – my meta-library – was the one in the next (very very small) town over from my village. They did their best – they’d keep books for you on request and order new ones when they could. The head librarian let me start on the adult section at ten, when I’d read my way through all the children’s books and most of the teens’ too. My mother used to take me every Saturday morning. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in the countryside in Ireland, but I’d come home with a clutch of new worlds to explore. Although I wasn’t really allowed to watch ‘Allo ‘Allo, I could read whatever I liked.  I remember distinctly another librarian asking me with suspicion if my mammy knew I was taking this out? (I forget what it was. Something unsuitable no doubt, I read my first Steven King at 11, scared the hell out of me for months.) Yes, I said, she recommended it.

The school library, the librarian’s special saying that she ‘didn’t remember asking you to talk, girls’. The geek-love for Oxford’s libraries, books all round and in stacks under your feet, knowing you could get anything ever published, even copies of Cosmo, and rumour has it there’s a room somewhere with all the magazine free gifts yours for the taking. (I never did find this). The 24-hour college libraries where you stayed awake on Red Bull and adrenaline.  The ones you had to put on white gloves to read the books, or where previous readers had scribbled long arguments in the margins – with pen! Having naps in the English Faculty and peering out at tourists from inside the Rad Cam. Stumbling across a silent, beautiful library at midnight on US Election night 2000, in the Oxford Union. I must have spent hours in libraries over the years.

I wouldn’t be a writer without libraries. I was a child who read up to ten books a week – where would I have got those from? As it is I own hundreds and we’re moving to a smaller house, and Himself keeps muttering about E-readers and charity shops. Imagine if I also owned every book I’ve ever read!

What’ll happen without libraries? People will lend to each other, perhaps. Soon someone will come up with a system. They’ll say, hey, let’s all pay a little – call it a tax – and we’ll buy new books centrally, and we’ll borrow them in rotation. Anyone can join, and we’ll give you a card or something so we know who has what. What a good idea!

If libraries didn’t exist, we’d only invent them anyway.