5 ways to find your way back to the page

Sometimes you need to hit pause on your writing relationship

Last year was a low point for me and my writing. The dynamic was starting to feel like a bad marriage. It isn’t romantic or cathartic or necessary to feel huge amounts of pain in exchange for words on a page. So, I had a trial separation. Here’s how we got back together. #writingcommunity #writerslife

At the end of last year, my relationship with writing felt like a bad marriage. Life was stalling in other ways, care of the pandemic and my tally of unsuccessful submissions, applications and pitches was getting depressing.

I wasn’t writing and I hated that I wasn’t writing but I just couldn’t seem to do it. There was no excitement. No chasing the unknown or following curiosity. No lightness or joy to it. Something that had been a life force for me had turned rotten.

It was feeding all my worst core beliefs. When I thought about writing the associations were dark and heavy; sadness and unworthiness, invisibility, despondence. It isn’t romantic or cathartic or necessary to feel huge amounts of pain in exchange for words on a page.

How can you write with those shadows at your hand? You can’t. Like all relationships, if it’s bringing you more sadness than joy, it’s worth examining if it it’s time to get out and for me it was. The idea was to have a trial separation, get some distance, have a think about it all and see if I could rekindle what we once had.

Here’s how I made it back to the page.

  1. Read if you can’t write

Someone once said that if you’re a writer who isn’t writing, then you should be reading and vice versa. Reading is sustenance, joy and escape. It’s immersion and fascination and the repeated exposure to text is also instructive. There’s a kind of osmosis occurring as you take it all in. There are styles you’ve never read before, structures you hadn’t imagined, impossibly gorgeous language and clever plotting. So, if you can’t do nothing but are finding it impossible to do something, reading is a good way to start the journey home.

2. Ban yourself from writing…or not

If the writing (or inability to do so) is causing the pain, then step away. Don’t write. Just put a ban on it for an amount of time that lets you off the hook. This isn’t wheedling yourself out of your regular writing practice or habit. This is an intervention to get you back there. You can’t make it better without a bit of distance and reflection.

And if not-writing is a not-option then….

3. Make it mean nothing

My writing had all become so loaded with the expectation of outcome. I needed to make it mean nothing so I could love it again. You can’t just turn off your desire to be published or your hopes that what you write will be ‘good’ but you can write things that aren’t meant to go beyond what they are.

Keep writing in your journal. Excavate the emotions that are setting it all off until you get a little nugget of something. Go old school and write letters to friends, birthday cards longer than they need to be, post-its with too much detail. Write notes apropos of nothing in particular, stories or poems that you don’t have any future plans for beyond the action of simply writing them. Or see number five for writing exercises that offer writing practice minus a loaded expectation of the outcome.

4. Don’t let it steal your other joys as well

Writing is a big part of my identity, so the rot I felt there started to spread through to other aspects of my life. Try and isolate it to stop the spread. Champion the healthy relationships you do have and the aspects of your life which are bringing you joy. Give them more time and attention. It’s the same advice for anyone going through any other negative thought cycle. Do some exercise. Spend time with the people you love. Do things that relax you and make you happy. Try to stay present and avoid the constant mental replay and fast-forward.

5. Learn something

This is a great time to admit humility and allow that there’s always more to learn. Read a book by a writing teacher (Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artists Way by Julia Cameron, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas). Read a book by a writer talking about their process and advice (On Writing by Stephen King, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck).

This is a chance to try new things and think about process rather than the outcome. Writing exercises are exactly that, exercise. They’re a great way to write without expectation and for this writer, it was the way back to the page. It was a reminder of what I love about writing, what I get out of it and why, for me, it’s a relationship worth sticking with.

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Colm Toibin’s The Magician and the right to write

I’ve just finished reading Colm Toibin’s The Magician. It’s an epic that covers most of his life. Its rich layers cover politics, sexuality, history and culture and it has a certain weight to it because of that but also because you’re in such good hands with Toibin.

In the midst of international politics and repressed sexuality though, all I could think about was the practical aspects of his writing life and how enabled he was by those around him, especially his wife Katia and daughter Erika.

Every day of his adult life, he spent the four hours before lunch writing. He always had his own study and children and visitors were warned not to disturb him, or even make too much noise in the house. He had six kids.

In the afternoon he napped and read and thought. Can you imagine??!!!

He had money, which makes a difference, but he’d also decided that he was a writer early on and expected time and silence as part of that.

I wonder how much of his ideas about having a right to write and a right to make demands about it was about gender and how much about the culture of the time and his social status?

I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer but still struggle with the idea of having a right to write. Do I dare take time for this?  There’s ‘Who am I to have something to say?’ mixed in with ‘Who am I to write when there are other obligations in the mix?’.

It was also interesting to read the gestation of his ideas and how they would build to become short fiction and novels. It all came from his life, the families he was part of, the holidays he took and the people he watched.

No one ever belittles his writing because of this. They never say his books are just glorified diaries or dismiss the content as domestic. It’s always intuited as something bigger than what it is. He has conflicting desires about men and boys and basically represses his sexuality. Even when he writes with desire and detail about young men, which definitely wasn’t socially acceptable, instead of interpreting it as his voice and his desire it’s elevated and thought of as metaphor or a clever device.

Of course it makes me think, about what woman would ever have her family observations lauded as high literature like he did or what woman would demand silence and have her husband and son shushing company and making diary arrangements so that she could get on with her writing. Every day. For at least four undisturbed hours. And then allow some napping and thinking time on top of that.

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Kneel down and weed the bindis, baby

Use your hands to get out of your head.

Sometimes, the only way to dilute all the monkey chatter is to do something hands-on and finicky that needs all of your attention.

For the readers outside of Australia, let me explain. Bindis (also called bindi-eyes) are small weeds that grow in circular clumps often near clover. They’re a summertime menace. When they’re young or there’s been a lot of rain, they’re soft and harmless. But as the weather gets hotter and dries out, they get thorny. Whole swathes of gorgeous grass are off-limits to bare feet because of them. Even thick-skinned soles will feel a bindi prick.

Spraying them partially works but the only way to truly deal with them is get down on your knees and pull them out, each little clump at a time across an entire lawn or verge. Your painstaking process will pay dividends across the whole summer and give you the satisfaction of a personal win but it also offers something in the moment – a chance to get out of your head and concentrate on something else completely.

Fine finger work and attention to detail have saved me from the unmooring of heartache, the dogged cycle of rumination and the waiting, waiting, waiting that comes with writing. You can’t do nothing but you feel unable to do any kind of significant something.

Perfect, you can kneel down and weed the bindis then, or make dolmades, clean a window, fold origami, sand back an old stool. There are plenty of small tasks that never get a look-in during normal life. They’re perfect for distraction and pride offering the satisfaction of something completed or created and the reprieve of getting out of your head for a while.

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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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Reading the classics

Why it’s good to mix it up with a classic every now and again

My literary diet is mostly contemporary fiction. Last week, I finished George Eliot’s Silas Marner. It kept getting pushed to the bottom of my bedside bookstack. I would look at it, think it seemed like too much ‘work’ and pick up something else from the pile.

Classics aren’t usually an easy read. They come from another age and bring the language of that time with them. That’s part of the reason they don’t feel easy but also why it’s good to give them a go now and again (that and the quiet hope that when I read Chekhov my own writing will improve through osmosis).

The way that they navigate around a sentence is different to how we do it now. The meaning is in there somewhere, it’s just not immediately clear. There’s a formality and inversion that can make it feel like you’re reading another language. After a few chapters though, it starts to feel normal and you’ve just given your brain some excellent training.

It’s also a great exercise in extending your attention span. They move slower than modern narratives do. There’s a lot of detail, exposition and they tell rather than show (gasp!). And really, what’s the rush? I confess, I skim more in a classic than I do in a modern book but once I’m into it, I don’t mind the digressions and departures that eventually get you to the action.

And I’m a voyeur, so I love being transported not just into someone else’s life but into another age. I love the historical placing and social insight you get when you’re reading from the past. Some of it makes you furious, and very happy that you live where and when you do, but what surprises me even more, is how a lot of it could be written now.

We’re thinking about the same things now that they did back then. The biggies are all there; love, loss, power, loyalty, betrayal, pride, jealousy, families, wealth.

In Silas Marner the loss of a child is no less for the infant mortality rates and there’s always someone looking for a way to get money for nothing. In Balzac’s Cousin Bette, they’re all talking about how expensive real estate is in Paris, worrying about their reputations and spending money that they don’t have.

And the Russians with their ability to paint the politics of an empire and an era against the internal struggles within families are surely the origin template for the ‘great American’ novels that have followed.

Life hasn’t changed so much. We as humans haven’t changed so much and I find that equal parts crazy and comforting.

When I say classics, I don’t think I’ve read anything earlier than Shakespeare. So now I want to know, the Greeks, the Romans, did they look for acknowledgement from parents? Did they take heartbreak as badly as we do? Feel inadequate against their peers?

Where do you suggest I start if I want to read an ancient classic?

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When in doubt…nature.

Nearly two months into the season, it’s undeniably Autumn. I’ve taken my cue from the tiles being too cold to walk on without socks and I think I may have had my last ocean swim for a while.

The turn of the season still feels fresh. It’s cosy to make soup, wind a scarf around my neck and snuggle between flannelette sheets at night. The tell-tale signs of the season in nature are also gorgeous to witness and a good reset for me personally.

I’ve been distracted lately which leads to a chaotic scatter-gun approach to whatever I’m working on. I’m hurried and impatient with a lot of picking-up and putting-down and not much getting-finished.

But these crisp Autumn days offer some friendly reminders. Nature is good like that. Cyclical. Eternal. Unhurried. Beautiful and so much bigger than us and our immediate quotidian concerns.

Of course, being in nature helps. Everything. Always. It makes me slow down and be subject to wonder again. But if you can’t get a hit of the real natural world then reading about it is a good enough second.

Here are some of my go-to writers for a nature intervention.

Jonathon Driori – his book, Around the World in 80 Trees, would be my desert island pick, the one and only book I would have in the world if I could have no other. He shares his vast arboreal knowledge with intellect and wit and the illustrations by Lucille Clerc are stunning! This book is my antidote to planet woe because nature doing her incredible thing is never going to be a downer. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and am so excited that it now has a companion in the recently released Around the world in 80 plants.

Mary Oliver – feels like she spent most of her life wandering in wonder and capturing nature with eloquence and reverence. Reading her poetry always slows time for me, as I mentioned in a previous Mary Oliver blog, and puts our place in the world back into perspective.

Helen Macdonald – as a poet, historian and falconer she created something completely unique in her book H is for Hawk. It’s another read that restores my faith in everything. It’s about grief and goshawks, about nature and being human and where any and all of those overlap. She has a new book Vesper Flights, which I’m told is just as good but haven’t got to yet.

Reading these writers, I soar to great heights, sink beneath the surface and see what’s around me anew. Clifftops, coastlines and deep roots make me feel the restorative power of nature that people have been writing about for centuries.

I’m sorry to say that I don’ have any local Australian titles or writers to offer, not because they don’t exist but because I just haven’t read much Australian nature writing yet….and I’m looking forward to some suggestions so I can right this wrong.

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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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