The eternal waiting room of lockdown

Take away the future and it’s hard to stay ‘present’.

We’ve been in lockdown for a few weeks now. I understand the necessity. It’s not as long as Sydney or as many times as Melbourne but what most of the country, nay world, has realised by now is that any lockdown is lockdown enough.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the idea of presence and my attempt to stop mentally scrolling backwards and forwards in time. Now I realise that to do that you need the neat bookending of both a past and future.

But time has slipped from its moorings. Lockdown, the eternal waiting room, has scrambled our sense of the future and, as I’m now realising, it’s hard to be in the present without a future.  

Waiting isn’t uncommon territory for a writer. We’re well aware of how uncomfortable it is to wait on submissions, feedback and querying. Waiting is its own kind of agony. It’s a protracted presence but one that isn’t really fixed on the moment. It has its sight set on some point in the future, when things will change or you’ll finally have your answer. With lockdown though, that future is on hold.

It feels like I’m caught in a Beckett loop except it isn’t Godot I’m waiting for. My eternal waiting is for the host to let me into the meeting, for the vaccine supply to arrive, for the daily reveal of dire digits in the press conference or for my daughter to actually start writing a sentence using her spelling words.

Some people are writing away and having a mini-renaissance with time and perspective. I’m frozen. Everything has come to a confused halt as I continue to wait.

My lockdown is stagnant in many ways but not still. Alas, not for me the baking of sourdough or learning of a new language. Between home-schooling, work and domestics, I don’t have much left in the tank, time or energy wise. I’m not reading much. I’m writing even less and I’m always at my worst when that happens.

Two characters in a Tom Stoppard play discuss the future. One says, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ The other replies, ‘Tomorrow, in my experience is usually the same day’ and I’d have to agree.

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The presence present

Trying to be more in the moment with life and writing

I’m trying to cultivate a new habit. My usual tendency is to spend way too much time thinking about the past and the future. Thoughts about the past keep me circling round regrets and pre-occupation with the future makes me feel like I’m still ‘waiting’ for life to happen. Both of these, of course, neglect what’s going on right now in the present and I didn’t realise how exhausting all this mental time travel was until I started to suspend it.

There are plenty of traditions and modalities that talk about the benefits of being present, so I’ve decided to give it a go. The results thus far are interesting. When you intentionally stick with what you’re doing, it gets done a lot faster and with more ease. I know, nothing surprising there. Just like so many of life’s learnings, it’s as simple and as difficult as that.

In the morning, I set some intentions around presence by writing down a few sentences of how I’ll be doing it and why I want to do it. Then I check in at regular intervals during the day to see where my mind’s at – rarely in the present, it turns out. It’d be great to find that I was in the moment more but being reminded that I’m not is enough to cut the loop of whatever mental re-run I’m on.

I’ve mainly been doing it with work and general life admin but I’m wondering how it would affect my writing. I’m sorry to say that I’m not often writing in the present. You get those golden streaks of pure flow but especially before I start writing, I think a lot about the end product and whether it will be published and read, where and who by. Then I think about past pieces and what did and didn’t work.

I’m constantly scrolling backwards and forwards and deciding the future of a piece based on past experiences. It must weigh words down when they arrive with such hopes and expectation, when you want them to achieve something big before they’re even born. I wonder what it would be like to write without that? Does it read as something different when it’s freed from all that chatter and of course, is it easier to write when it’s just you and it in the moment?

I also wonder would it add more depth to my writing. The idea of tuning in to the senses is a common suggestion for finding more of a connection with the present moment, so if I’m more open to the tactile or visual or aural, would that have a flow on effect with my writing?

I’m interested in how it works for others. Maybe this is how everyone else is already writing, firmly in their now. If so, is this just how it works for you or did you cultivate a process to get you there? Or does all that past and future rumination freeze you and stop you from starting anything?

I’m going to keep trying to offer the present of presence to my words. I want to see if it’s as good for them as it is for my to-do list.

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Comparison the joy thief

Comparing yourself to others isn’t helpful but it is human.

Last week I found out that I was unsuccessful in four story submissions that I’d made for publications and competitions. I didn’t find out through the usual ‘unfortunately, this time your piece wasn’t chosen’ email, instead it was by reading declarations on Twitter from the writers who were successful.

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. There they went, one by one, the little bubbles of hope and possibility I have when I’m still waiting to hear back on a few submissions. Next came a slow deflating sigh and then disappointment.

For me, the disappointment usually starts me questioning and the questioning usually leads to comparing. How many stories have they had published? How many competitions have they won? Do they have an agent? Have they had published a book? How many followers do they have?

There will always be room for comparison, even when books are published, an agent is secured and followers are plentiful you can compare prize nominations, festival invitations, sales into foreign territories, options for films or bodies of work. It doesn’t matter what you have, someone else will always seem to have more.

Comparison is indeed a joy thief. Comparing yourself or your work to someone else isn’t helpful but it is human. With that in mind, I’ve gathered together some quotes and I’m hoping that reading them will help to still the spiral for when I next slip into the comparison vortex.

“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbour says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Comparison is the death of joy.” Mark Twain

“Don’t compare your life to others. There’s no comparison between the sun and the moon. They shine when it’s their time.” Unknown

“A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it, it just blooms.” Zen Shin  

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“You cannot envy the branch
That grows bigger
From the same seed,
And you cannot
Blame it on the sun’s direction.
But you still compare us….”
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun (2010)

“Comparison is the most poisonous element in the human heart because it destroys ingenuity and it robs peace and joy.”
Euginia Herlihy

“Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. “I will not Reason and Compare,” said Blake; “my business is to Create.” Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable. ” Brenda Ueland

“There is really no use in comparing yourself to others. There will always be someone ahead and someone behind, and there will be dozens (if not hundreds) of different scales and gradients to be behind and ahead on.
To be number one is never final. It is and always will be a momentary, fleeting instant. But to be a growing version of yourself? That, you can be. You can be that every single day.” Vironika Tugaleva

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Exposure and security

The paradox of the writing process

I woke up last Wednesday night to go to the toilet and found our front door wide open. Panic and confusion froze me for a minute but the real shock was the immediate feeling of exposure.

We have a front gate that is usually shut, a screen door that is closed and a front door that is locked after them. Each one of these things isn’t much; vertical pickets, metal and some mozzie mesh, wood with a glass inlay. They are thin and breakable but their presence has always felt like protection enough. Standing in the middle of the night with the cold air coming in, I certainly felt vulnerable without them closed.

We have a street light directly out the front and it lit up the hall like a runway. Whoever it was followed the light to my handbag and car keys. They took both, left the doors open and drove away in our car.

So, I’ve been reflecting on exposure and security and what the things are in our life that make us feel safe and whether they really are the refuge that we think they are. It was quite the digression but this leads me, of course, to writing.

For a lot of us, writing is a refuge. It’s a safe place and a haven. Does it feel like this because of our familiarity with it? Is it because we control it or because we’re expelling words onto a page and putting them there for their own safe-keeping?

Secure things are usually known and familiar. They offer us comfort and reassurance. There is also the idea that security allows self-assurance which is a cosy concept to be tucked up with. And so, we come to the tangled paradox of writing because often it doesn’t feel like that at all.

Writing can be uncomfortable and unnerving and sending our words out into the world is surely a kind of exposure. You give a glimpse of what is within and open yourself up to other people’s reactions. Then there’s the self-doubt and the cyclical swing between pride and embarrassment.

But we still write.

Writing offers us exposure and security at the same time and perhaps that’s where the challenge and the thrill of it lies, in trying to find a balance between the push and pull of it.

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Games you shouldn’t play

A few tips for your next game of ‘How old were they when they published their first book?

Before we start, a disclaimer. There is a small chance that playing How old were they when they published their first book? will make you feel better but a much bigger chance that it’ll make you feel worse. The older you get, the worse the odds are. Young players have a much higher likelihood of coming out satisfied.

Tip – Even young players might want to avoid the Romantic poets who have both early publication and death.

Here are a few authors you may want to try for a more reassuring outcome of how old they were when their first books were published:

Elizabeth Strout –42 years old

Marcel Proust – 43 years old

Julia Donaldson – 45 years old

J. R. R. Tolkien – 45 years old

Raymond Chandler – 51 years old

Daniel Defoe – 59 years old

Laura Ingalls Wilder – 65 years old

I usually only play this when I shouldn’t, when I’m already at a low ebb about where I’m at with my writing and publication possibilities. And of course, it usually makes me feel worse, which means I start avoiding the type of books I normally like to read because otherwise I’ll just do the maths and feel shitty again.

This week, I played a few rounds and got so disheartened that most of my reading pile became off-limits. When that happens, I usually head to the classics. They seem too out of my world for a direct comparison. I picked up Silas Marner and yet somehow, I found some things to envy in George Eliot’s literary trajectory.

My solution was to get out of fiction altogether. I headed over to Jonathon Driori’s Around the World in 80 trees where there is always solace and beauty to be found no matter how low my spirits.

Here are the rules but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Step 1

Read a book that you like written by an author who is a similar match to your own demographic (age, gender, genre….).

Step 2

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when the author was born.

Step 3

Read the bio/blurb to find out what their first book was.

Step 4

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when their first book was published.

Step 5

Head to Wikipedia for the above information if you can’t find it in the book.

Step 6

Do a detailed Google search to find any information that is not in the book or Wikipedia.

Step 7

Do some simple maths.

year of first book publication – year born = age that first book was published

Step 8

Compare their age to your age and react accordingly.

Final note – This game isn’t exclusive to writers. You can play by changing the author for any person in your chosen field and by changing a book to any achievement that you’re aiming for.

Have you got any more later-life debut authors that I can add to my list of reassurance?

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The Promise of the Premise

What are you promising readers at the start of a story?

Opening pages are like a contract that you make with your readers – here are the people you’ll follow, here is the pace we’re likely to take and this is the tone I’ll be taking. If the reader is up for it, they keep reading and reading. That’s their part of the contract.

Your part is an agreement to give them a story that matches what you offered at the start of the story. You don’t need to mirror the opening or give them the ending they anticipated but I now think that you do at least owe them a sense of balance.

I say ‘now’ because to be honest it’s something I haven’t been in the habit of doing. I haven’t thus far been much of a plotter when it comes to writing fiction, so when I start writing something new, I don’t think about what I’m offering the reader. I can’t because I don’t even know where I’m going yet.

Recent feedback on some of my short stories has made me think about this private pact between the reader and writer. I was writing endings because I liked the image that they left but my readers wondered why after following a certain character for most of the story I would end on another one instead. For someone who believed in promises, I didn’t realise how casually I’d been breaking them.

I think in novel length manuscripts I’m more aware of who is owed the air-play. In short stories if there is a roving POV, I’m not always sure that I divvy up the limelight quite right. It doesn’t have to be about character though. The question is whether you’ve honoured your set up.

I find beginnings and endings tough to write. They can be awkward and clunky and feel like they have a lot riding on them. However, editing and rewriting them becomes less unwieldy when you think about the promise of your premise. There’s a nice circular feeling to it.

If your initial offering doesn’t match anymore then it gives you the chance to think about what and where your real story is and how you could change your opening so that it honours what the story has become.

A promise is a promise after all.

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Are you a goal getter?

With a fresh new year, it’s time to put pen to paper…..and do a little planning.

I’ve always liked the fresh start of a new year. First, I write a letter to the year that was. I reflect and say goodbye. Then, I write a letter to the new year to say hi and have a little chat about my hopes and ideas for the next 12 months.

My 2020 diary (A5, week to a double-page, hard cover, Kikki-k) now has me hooked on setting some goals too. I liked the questions it asked at the beginning of the year. They were an extension of the reflections in my letters and not all of them were about goals. It had regular check-ins and prompts. Then it got granular and asked what I needed to do in the next thirty days to get things moving. It asked about actions and priorities and kept asking about them all year. Actually, it asked every month and week and all that asking kept me on track.

There were no trick questions. It was always the same thing again and again re-checking what my goals were, what the priorities within them were and what actions I needed to do to get there.

So, I nibbled away rather than taking bite-sized chunks and found out that it’s much easier to keep an appetite that way. I also don’t give as much procrastination push-back to small tasks. Once I got some momentum going, I found that actually doing the things you’ve been meaning to do is very satisfying and kinda addictive.

There’s oodles of stuff out there about goals and goal setting. There’s a whole industry devoted to it but the simplicity of a regular written reflection was enough for me.

In a pandemic year, I managed to move cities with my young family and finish writing an anthology of short stories. One needed logistics and planning, the other, discipline. Both needed the stamina of ‘the long game’ and I may not have been as match-fit for that if I hadn’t been constantly checking in on them as ‘goals’.

The lesson I could’ve done with learning a decade ago is that it’s possible to think about something you want, consistently do small actions towards making it so and then have it actually happen.

I know. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

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Ideas in the dark

If life’s too noisy to hear your subconscious, try some insomnia or an acupuncture appointment.

I went to the acupuncturist recently. I hadn’t been for ages and as I lay there with the lights dimmed, I had ideas. New ideas for new projects as well as useful ideas to try with sticky plot points in current projects.

I remembered that when I had regular acupuncture appointments, I also used to sit in the car afterwards frantically scribbling in my notebook, so that I didn’t lose all the ideas that I’d had. This also happens sometimes in the middle of the night when I can’t get back to sleep. I hate those early broken hours but it’s a consolation that at least I get a few good ideas out of it.

I feel like my subconscious is telling me something along the lines of, ‘Have you noticed it takes a lot of sensory deprivation for me to deliver my most interesting morsels? Do you wonder if there could be an easier way to get new ideas?’

And I do wonder if there could be a better way but I’m never really doing nothing. If I’m sitting down and having a cup of tea, I’m probably also noting the state of the floor or idly adding to the shopping list. If I’m swimming laps or having a walk then there’s still everything around you to process and if I’ve insisted to myself that I need to just sit and do nothing, then I’m probably worrying about how I might be wasting this moment of nothingness by still thinking about something. There isn’t the same release in those moments as there is on the acupuncture table. I can’t move. It’s dark and warm. I have nowhere else to be and there’s no expectation for me to do anything.

This process is described in psychologist Melissa Burkley’s article Where do writers get their ideas? She talks about how our mind is controlled by two systems; controlled and automatic. The controlled system is basically our conscious awareness while the automatic system works outside this. She describes it as “the part of our mind that handles all our dirty work in order to make our lives easier.” Ideas are more likely to come when our conscious mind is settled enough to let us actually “hear the quiet voice of the unconscious mind”.

It would seem that my conscious mind is like one of those babies who needs more than a quiet room to sleep. They need their parents to black out the windows as well.

A lot of people talk about how they have ideas when they’re walking or doing exercise. That’s often how I find solutions when something in a piece of writing isn’t working. But for me, new ideas that come from nowhere usually start in the dark.

Where and when do you get your best ideas?

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So Roxette had it right all along?

I wasted a lot of writing time ignoring 90s pop lyrics.

Let me do a quick refresh for those who aren’t children of the 90s: Roxette was a Swedish pop duo with big hits in the early 90s. Per and Marie usually sang catchy upbeat songs but Listen to your heart was their breakthrough ballad.

We’re all welcome to laugh at pop lyrics but sometimes they get it right in their simplicity – Listen to your heart.

I wish I’d considered that we could follow our heart or instincts in areas beyond love and romance.

Everyone always says that first novels are autobiographical. When I first decided that I was going to write a novel, I was obsessed by this idea and wanted to make sure that this wasn’t going to be the case with me. How embarrassing for it to look like I was in there somewhere. How wrong and un-proper-writer. And of course, how frightening to be so ‘seen’.

So, I tried very hard to make it look like it wasn’t my first novel and put none of myself into it. It was a really hard manuscript to write. So were the next two manuscripts I wrote which I was also determined wouldn’t have any traces of me.

Timed passed, like it does. The more I read, the more I thought it was ridiculous for people to think that writers don’t leave any residue on their writing and why would I think of this as a weakness or something to be embarrassed about?

I read a lot of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing. The questions they were asking themselves and their own experiences were imprinted onto to their stories. They did it without shame or secrecy. I started to question this idea that to put yourself in your writing was a weakness and a trap for young players? Isn’t that the courage part, the part where you will be seen and maybe questioned, maybe found wanting, maybe not even ‘liked’ for it?

Now I know that things only get interesting if you take a bit of a risk and follow your instinct or heart. If I’d listened to my heart and followed what I wanted to be writing instead of what I thought I should be writing, I wonder how different things might have turned out.

No matter, all writing is experience and I think of those manuscripts as a kind of apprenticeship. They were long lasting and it felt like I was giving more than I got. But that’s not true, they’re also done and I know a lot more than I did when I started.

For me they were also a lesson in what not-to do. Writing isn’t easy but it also shouldn’t have to be that hard. If it feels like a real push, it might be time to listen to your heart. Are you writing what you need to write or what you think you should be writing? The answer will sometimes surprise you.

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Complaints about the writing life?

Consider who you commiserate with and how you do it.

My Dad died when I was 22. In the immediate years after, when people complained about their father all I could think was, well, at least you have one.

We all need to complain, debrief, whinge and let it out sometimes. But what you complain about and who you say it to matters. I write this because recently I’ve listened to and read a few author essays talking about how exhausting the publicity is for a new book.

Ah creative envy, watch this space. There will be more posts about this because as much as I’d love to be a bigger person, more generous and genuine about the success of other writers sometimes, on the difficult days, it’s the last thing I want to hear. I’m hoping this makes me human rather than mean.

I’m happy to be happy for people’s success but it’s hard to sympathise with the fatigue that comes from too many people being interested in your book, a little like complaining about night feeds to a friend who wants (but doesn’t have) a baby or talking about how work is sooo busy to someone whose industry disappeared this year.

I read Ann Patchett’s (great) book of essays This is the story of a happy marriage. She’s a great writer and I love her books but I was going through a very long dry spell when I read it. There had been no publication, no short-listing, no long-listing, no pitches accepted, no nothing for my writing for a loooong time. It was hard to read about how she just happened to get published in Paris Review at 17, then went on to do a creative writing course, got a grant to write her debut novel, had it published and has been writing and publishing novels ever since. I’m paraphrasing, but that was the trajectory as she told it.

Harder to read though, was the chapter about the Book Tour. She talked about how tiring, relentless and repetitive it all was. All valid and obviously true. I just wasn’t the right reader to commiserate with lonely hotel rooms and interested interviewers.

As writers, at any stage of our careers, we do love to share our stories from the front. There is camaraderie from shared experiences and the creative pursuit of writing offers its own unique agony and ecstasy but Charlotte Wood said something that I think is worth remembering, “Writing is a privilege and a choice.”  

It doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to be exhausted or overwhelmed or over it. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t complain but it is worth thinking about who you choose to do it with and the fact that it’s a choice to write in the first place.

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