Category Archives: Sophie is writing

Learning to meditate

I have been an advocate of meditation for years. I used to love dropping into the London Buddhist Centre whenever I got the chance, just to soak up the atmosphere if nothing else. I held the thought of finding that inner peace, that inner silence, on something of a pedestal.

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When I started teaching I quickly became interested in holistic approaches to helping teenagers cope with the stresses of school, and enthusiastically read reports of daily meditation transforming students’ experiences. I tried to find ways to feed it into the school day – created resources featuring links to guided visualisations for my colleagues to use in tutor time. It seemed to make such perfect sense: take the time to breathe, to reconnect with yourself, and suddenly everything would be so much easier to cope with.

I have a confession to make, though: I had absolutely no idea how to actually do it.

I still don’t.

There was a leadership course I went on that sticks in my mind. It was about Project Management I think, and there was a whole section of it focusing on Work Life Balance. I’ve always struggled with that. Once I get stuck into something I find it almost impossible to let it go, only to collapse in a heap when it’s finally done. Harder to take that approach with a kid to look after mind… The thing I remember about this section of the course, other than being told by the facilitator that I really needed to work on my Work Life Balance (thanks) was being led through a guided meditation at the end of it.

Being a Teaching Leadership course, this was as with everything couched in its potential in the classroom. That I could totally get behind. But to do it? To actually stop moving and quiet my brain enough to attempt the meditation myself? That kind of scared me a little bit.

I’d never really stopped to think about how odd this all was. How I can be completely won over by something both in theory and through the positive impact I’ve seen it have on other people, how I know that this thing is probably exactly what I need to help me deescalate my tendencies towards stress and anxiety, and yet how I have never, in the twenty years or so that it has been on my radar, made the effort to include it in my life, for me.

I guess ultimately reaching for a glass of wine at the end of the day is a whole lot easier to get my head around…

But part of my ‘kick 2017’s ass‘ plan of action is to change that. January is proving a little bit extreme in my efforts to jumpstart this year of productivity – I’m going for a full-on no booze, no caffeine, no dairy, no gluten, no sugar (etc) detox, upping my activity levels with more walking, swimming and yoga, doing all sorts of life-organising, goal-setting, motivation-boosting work related stuff AND trying to find the time to meditate, every day.

And mainly it’s working.

Almost every single day I’m managing to fit in ten minutes of guided meditation. I don’t think I’m very good at it – stilling my mind is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever really tried to do – but I’m giving it a go, and I’m learning.

I’m learning what kinds of meditations work for me, and which ones don’t.

Visualisations, for example, are really tough. I think it’s the writer in me – I find myself either judging the narrative for its plethora of cliches, or else getting drawn in just enough to begin to flesh out the story around the scenario. Why am I in this secluded cabin in the woods? Am I really alone? Is that safe..? This beach… Where is it exactly? Can I swim? I’d like to swim… And so on. It’s a real effort, trying to stop my mind from riffing on the words. And as for being able to turn them into images that’s really not working for me so far.

Stuff focused on my breathing is better. I like breathing – consciously. It’s a bit of a hangover from my acting days I reckon. And as long as I don’t get too competitive about it it seems to work to chill me out.

There was a new meditation I tried tonight, on cultivating kindness and compassion. I was a little sceptical I admit, but actually there was something incredibly healing about all of those positive vibes. (Especially when directed towards the people who have been monumentally stressing me out over the past 48 hours, but I’m not going to dwell on that…)

Basically this is a journey that is worth continuing. And possibly one I should have started a lot earlier… But hey – we have to let go of the past, right? Focus on the present, and build our resilience for the future.

That’s what I’m going with anyway.

 

 

The wisdom of a child

I have been working on two pieces of writing this week. My December resolution seems to have done the job, and whilst I haven’t written every day I have relished that blissful state of being immersed in creative writing – though interestingly both pieces have their roots in fact.

One more solidly so: each year at around this time since Arthur was almost one I have written a book about the previous twelve months – lots of photos, and words that attempt to capture the essence of his adventures and how he has grown.

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The first was a chunky board book made by a company in the states. I couldn’t actually find anyone who would create a custom one off in the UK (business opportunity anyone?), so that was pretty expensive… The next two I made myself using blank board book templates. Totally achievable, especially with some sticky-backed printer paper, but more than a little time-consuming.

This year I really couldn’t face the logistics of actually putting the book together, and now that Arthur is old enough that chewing books isn’t generally in his repertoire I figured a standard paperback would be fine. So I went to Blurb, and used their very excellent software to put this year’s book together. It would have been almost entirely painless had I not left it until the last day for ordering to get it delivered in time…

I can’t wait to see it, and to read it with him. It’s interesting for me seeing how these books are developing year on year: there’s a lot of rhyme, and more so this year just because there’s more text in general. There’s also definitely more imagination creeping in, reflecting Arthur’s cognitive growth and understanding. I think as he gets older the foray into metaphors might be quite fun – and there will still be the base pleasure for him of a story that is based on his own experiences.

The second piece I’ve been writing this week is too, in a way. It was inspired by something Arthur said to me a little while ago – actually woke me up with, as in crept into my room and whispered it into my ear whilst I was still half-asleep. He said “I dreamt this house was the Millennium Falcon, and outside was the entire galaxy”.

Recalling that now I guess I could have taken the story it inspired into a whole intergalactic sci-fi direction, but in fact the world it brought to mind (particularly in the context of those sleepy mornings) was one where a mother and son were trapped, facing seemingly unsurmountable challenges together.

It has an aura of Room about it, but it’s actually closer to 28 Days Later – without the zombies. I really enjoyed the process of writing from a very intimate, domestic starting point and through my characters (who are not exactly me and Arthur) discovering a whole other backdrop to their existence that I had no clue about when I began.

I took the time to plan once I started to realise what was going on, though, so I think I know where things are headed now. One, or maybe two, more sessions and I should have a first draft done – and I’m quite excited about crafting this piece into something submittable.

It’s all been a wonderful reminder of how utterly inspiring hanging out with a little person all day really is. There is no doubt that it’s hard work, and sometimes I find myself wishing that I had more hours in the day that were not filled up with the mundanity of family life.

But it took having a child to finally empower me to realise my dream of becoming a writer: and when I take a moment to stop and reflect on just how magical that child is it is not hard to understand why.

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Start: write

So despite all of my self-directed pep talks and statements of intent, the last couple of months have been a bit of a damp squib as far as writing is concerned.

Not necessarily in terms of the bigger picture – things are fizzing with potential there on all sorts of levels – but definitely in terms of the actual getting-new-words-on-the-page part of this whole writing lark, which ultimately is the only thing that keeps it sustainable.

It’s been getting me down, if I’m honest. I’ve been so busy doing stuff, some enjoyable, some less so, but all eating up my time. And the sitting down and writing creatively thing, the thing that was my priority (baby aside) when I decided to not go back to teaching after having Arthur, has just faded into oblivion.

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I think it was partly meeting up with all my lovely writing buddies that reminded me how much I missed it, the writing. And I don’t mean the blog – between here, Connecta Lives and eye-wateringly epic grant application forms I’m doing plenty of that kind of getting-words-on-a-page.

I’ve even managed to tie in my local lido obsessed campaign work with the building skills for blogging thing, having set myself the target to create a self-hosted wordpress blog for the pool which will (hopefully) teach me how to do it for myself.

But it’s all a bit too grounded in the real world. I’ve been missing my imagination. And I think especially in a year as crazy as this one has been that imagination is frankly the only hope we have.

So.

I have decided that I am going to bring my creative writing to the foreground again – to give it priority over all of the other jobs I have to do. I can normally convince myself that they are way more urgent – generally because in a coldhearted cut and dry way they are. The writing is, of course, important – but it gets totally lost when the pressure of time is applied.

It is time, though, to override that urgent-important matrix, or at least to elevate the creative writing bit so high on the importance scale that it doesn’t matter if no-one notices if I get it done.

Because I do, and actually maybe that’s the most important thing of all.

I have a bit of a plan, which involves my creative project being the very first thing I open when I sit down at the computer. Not necessarily at the start of the day – I might try to get back to the blissful state of crack of dawn writing, but given that we’re in the depths of winter I don’t want not managing that to be the excuse for not doing anything.

The other excuse I’ve been giving myself is that I’m not working on a novel. I should probably get into the edit of the third one at some point if I’m honest, but for now I have various short story ideas swimming around my brain.

So the first thing I did yesterday was catch them, and put them in a Scrivener document. Much as I love the thought of scribbling in a notebook the past thirty six hours have taught me that I get many more words down on paper when it’s the virtual kind.

I realise that this is exactly the wrong time for resolutions, what with Christmas and Arthur’s birthday to contend with over the next few weeks, but at least this way I should be going into 2017 with a much clearer idea of where I’m at.

And might just have the chance of getting out of this annus horribilis with at least a scrap of my sanity…

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A tribe of writers

Did you know that there is no collective noun for writers?

I suppose it’s not so surprising, really, what with writing so often being a lonesome experience: sat with a notebook, or in front of a computer, or reading a novel, or lost in important imaginings.

But actually, it’s pretty hard staying focused on all that without a group of people around you that know what it’s all about.

Plenty of people have mulled over this question of what that group should be called: I quite like ‘an alliteration of writers’ – if only for how it sounds. Or a ‘hyperbole of writers’ – but maybe just because it’s one of my favourite words… For me, my group of writers is most definitely a tribe.

Mainly our interaction exists in this virtual world – we met through social media, and our blogs, and through the wonderful What I’m Writing community. I found it all a bit awkward at first: I realise meeting people online has been pretty standard for years now, and on a more personal level I don’t think I would ever have become reacquainted with the man who became my husband if it hadn’t been for Facebook. Still, though, it took me a while to get my head round the fact that these people who I knew only through their words, who I had never actually met in real life, could become my friends.

Turns out that was nonsense.

It is different, getting to know people online. But in a lot of ways it cuts through all the crap. Reading people’s blogs is like a little window into their souls, and much as it can feel strange sometimes to share perspectives on the world which might only come out in real life after hours of chat with people who are essentially strangers, it all becomes worthwhile when you find the words which dance around the same frequency as your own – and even more so when you meet the people who wrote them.

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When you end up with a lunch like the one we had on Saturday, which starts at 1pm and lasts into the evening, with eight creative and talented and opinionated and awesome women sat around a table sharing their thoughts on everything from politics to parenting to relationships to, of course, writing. When you realise that somehow by bonding over words of fiction you have happened upon a group of people who share a deep injustice at the state of the world and the determination to do something about it. When you accept that each one of them will do that differently, but that’s ok – just like we’re all going about this writing thing differently, and that’s ok too.

We spent ages dissecting the pros and cons of self-publishing and agents and independent presses, of aiming high versus getting your words out there, of writing what you want versus trying to shape your work for the market. And our conclusion? They’re all just different ways of doing things, and we all have different perceptions of the way that will work for us.

And that’s ok. And more than a little bit liberating.

I am so grateful for all of the amazing friends I have met during the different phases of my life so far, and to have come across this brilliant group of women now, just when I’m starting to own this current incarnation as a writer, feels almost too good to be true.

Because although writing is by its very definition a solitary pursuit, there is a strength in numbers that cannot fail to help when the self-doubt sets in. And after Saturday, it feels more than that: we protect each other, sure, but we inspire each other too – and egg each other on to pursue our own impossible dreams.

The world has felt like an increasingly scary place to be this year, and whilst part of my response to that has been reaching out to old friends and finding with relief that they are very much still there, the fissures that have opened up in our society have made me doubt whether my place within it is quite as secure as I once thought it was. Having focused for a long time on carving my own path, confident to choose the road less travelled if that is the one that calls to me, I am feeling the need for back-up.

And here, through my writing tribe, whether they are tapping away at a keyboard hundreds of miles away or sharing just one more glass of wine across the table as day turns into night, I might just have found it.

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Writing at the end of the world

Let’s just take stock of where we’re at.

The UK is hurtling towards an ungainly Brexit, voted for by just over a third of the adult population and headed up by an unelected Prime Minister who is swiftly making Margaret Thatcher look like some sort of socialist saint.

The US, not to be outdone, has voted in a billionaire who openly gloats about tax avoidance and assaulting women. The percentage of the population who are happy about this is even lower than the ‘overwhelming mandate’ leading our country into disaster, and both of our nations, who can thank for their successes generations of immigration and open-mindedness, are battening down the hatches for an extreme right-wing orgy of which Hitler would be proud.

Alongside this, the world is still facing (if not yet facing up to) the worst humanitarian crisis since World War One, military leaders from Russia to China are seemingly putting things in place for yet more global conflict, and our media is having a field day in this post-truth age which has never been less interested in the facts of the situation where there’s a good story to be had.

And don’t even get me started on the travesties that are quietly being played out on our doorsteps behind this international shitstorm. The health and education services that are being dismantled and sold off to the highest bidder, the fat cats getting fatter whilst the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are living hand to mouth, or dying behind a smokescreen of spin.

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It is hard to know what to do.

It is hard to know what the point is of doing anything.

And yet…

I was reminded the other day about why it is I am a writer: why I love books, and art, and culture. Why it matters even more when everything else is falling apart. It was one of those rare moments when the different parts of my life collide: I was at a Torbay Culture Forum meeting to discuss ideas for the future of Shoalstone Pool, and I found myself surrounded by a table of inspiring, talented people who have an unshakable belief in the ability of culture to affect change.

I do, too: that’s why I was passionate about teaching literature and drama and film as well as the more functional elements of literacy and media studies. It is why I trained as an actor many moons ago, and is why I have spent so very many hours over the last few years carefully crafting three novels whilst learning what it is to be a mum.

It is easy to forget, though, at times like this. It is easy to think that it is only by addressing politics head on that you can really make a difference, and that artistic endeavour is frivolous and self-indulgent. I think I’ve been stuck in that space for a while now.

But it’s time to break out. Something clicked when I was away last week, and I have come back with a renewed sense of what I’m doing and why.

I have an idea for a collection of short stories, inspired by this impending sense of doom but altogether more hopeful than that sounds. I’ve been putting pen to paper, playing around with words, and finding the whole process quite therapeutic. As stories emerge I’m planning to set them free into the world and see if any of them can find a home, but I’m feeling strangely liberated by the fact that I’m envisaging this as a collection too, a cohesive work that I might be able to put out there myself someday soon.

I say soon, but I still have no idea where that bigger picture of submissions is taking me. What I do know, though, is I need to own this writer hat, to separate it out from the new-mother angst that spawned this blog. So I have a separate writing blog in the works, which hopefully will be ready to launch in the new year.

This links in to another realisation I’ve had, about what it is that ties together all the stuff on this blog that isn’t about writing – and that is, surprise surprise, linked closely to that sense of creeping armageddon too.

It’s all about changing the world, basically. About nurturing a new generation – as a parent and a teacher – that will do things differently. Do things better. And I think I want to explore this more explicitly, with a blog dedicated to this idea of child rearing as a quiet and determined revolution.

It fits quite neatly with all my thoughts already about parenting and education, but I think the time has come to own that side of me too – not just to voice my thoughts and apologise afterwards for failing to embrace the status quo.

So.

Change is afoot.

Time to silence that demon who has taken a break from criticising my writing to laugh at me for believing that I can make a difference, however small that difference might be.

Because if not me, who? And if not now, when?

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In pursuit of popularity

We moved on to the third series of Black Mirror this week, which began with the slightly too close to home satire of Nosedive.

I say too close to home, but actually as I was watching (and judging) the protagonist as her picture-perfect life descended into chaos after her pursuit of people’s approval became just that bit too obvious I spent most of my time thinking how glad I was that I had managed to avoid getting sucked into the social media cess pit that already bubbles just beneath the surface of our society.

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Sure, I have a pretty active online presence. There’s this blog of course, and the instagram and twitter and Facebook accounts that go with it. But I don’t strictly use them as promotional tools. I mean I use them to promote my posts sometimes of course. But not exclusively, or even mainly. And the rest of what I post is just observation or record-keeping. I don’t really care if anyone reads it, or if I get more followers as a result.

Not much anyway. At least I don’t think I do.

I mean, I don’t even know my Klout score.

I’m not even sure I really understand what Klout is, but that’s what I thought of as I saw Lacie delight over the positive reviews she received and despair as her rating began to plummet. And if you’re serious about blogging, or social media in general, then of course you have to come out on top, right? Of course people have to like what you do the best, because otherwise why would anyone want to invest in you, to use you to help sell their brand and bestow on you all the perks that come with that?

I guess it is different in that ultimately the things being rated are brands themselves, yes? It’s not the people who are being judged, even if sometimes it’s tricky to tell where the person ends and the brand begins. And really that’s the whole stamp of a successful brand in this personality-driven blowing culture I’m dipping my toes into – it needs to be authentic, to have integrity. Otherwise what’s the point?

Anyway. I’m not doing that. That’s not what this blog’s about – it’s not what my social media presence is about. I don’t care about my ratings. It doesn’t matter how popular I am. I just want to write.

Except…

A few days ago I heard back from the administrators of the competition I’d entered one of my novels into. It was a standard response – exceptionally high standards, yada yada, I should be proud of even finishing a novel, yada yada – the upshot of which was that my novel hadn’t made it through to the next round. It hadn’t even been longlisted.

And I reassured myself that it was the response I’d expected, obviously. I hadn’t thought I’d hear back so soon, had figured I’d be able to hold on to my optimistic imaginings for a little while longer, but I hadn’t really dared hope that my novel would get anywhere.

Except of course I had, because that’s why I’m still doing this. That’s why I’m still writing, and editing, and submitting, because one day I believe that someone will pick up one of my books and declare it a masterpiece.

But not this time.

And really, why should it bother me? It’s just the opinion of one person after all. One more person, who admittedly counts for rather more in this fickle world of publishing than your average reader, and in fact is one of the gatekeepers who decides whether the average reader ever gets to make their own mind up about the book I’ve written, but still just one person.

And it’s not really about me. It’s about my words – my work. Except I haven’t quite mastered the art of separating that out from the very essence of my soul quite yet.

Ultimately I guess there’s less than I thought that separates me from Lacie, and that whole slippery slope of the popularity game. I could ignore it completely I suppose, just write because I love it – because I do love it. But if I’m honest I’d quite like people to read the stuff I write, and to like the stuff they read.

So I’ll keep on keeping on, nurturing my corner of the internet whilst not being too bothered if it sometimes seems a bit littler than I might like. Writing the things I feel like writing, occasionally reaching out to the gatekeepers who might help me find a bigger audience but trying not to mind too much if they don’t respond.

It’s all a bit of a minefield this aspiring author business.

I think I might need a holiday…

 

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A rambling mind…

After endless procrastination I finally submitted my second novel to a competition this week, meaning that all three have a (temporary) home. I am not holding out much hope that the two ‘finished’ ones will shine in what I’m sure are hugely competitive fields, but still it gives them something to do whilst I patiently await feedback on novel number three.

I seem to have a particular knack at handing over a significant project to my agent just at the point that the franticness of Frankfurt Book Fair hits, but now that’s over it shouldn’t be too long before I know where things stand with that one and can focus back on the bigger picture of finding all three a more permanent home.

In the meantime I have been finding seeds of inspiration all over the place, scribbling them down in my notebook and mulling over their potential to germinate into stories.

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I’ve been doing some free writing, snatching moments of calm to just pick up a pen and see what flows. What I liked about that was that when I was starting with the words themselves rather than an idea the sounds of those words and the way they interplay as collections of letters on a page became my focus. Definitely something to remember when plots and characters start to get in the way.

I’ve been taking quotes too – things Arthur has said, mostly – and using them as first lines to develop a stream of consciousness.

Then there was a moment when we were in Barcelona that really got me thinking… My friend’s daughter asked Leigh to tell her the story of King Arthur, and he sat down and did, in great detail. Reflecting on it afterwards he said he was struck by the misogyny and abuse at the heart of the story as he began to see it through the eyes of a nine year old girl. Which made us both think about how the story could be reshaped through that lens, the male and female characters recast… It’s not a new conceit, to bring a female character to the foreground in the retelling of an ancient myth, but it is something I would like to explore.

Something else that’s got me thinking is the TV series Black Mirror. We only discovered it in the last couple of weeks, and I love its near-future dystopias and reflections on the impact of technology on society. It’s reminded me of some old ideas I had, and made me keen to go back and look at them again.

I’m not sure if I’m ready to try to mould any of these thoughts into something more concrete yet, but I might give it a go over the next few days – just to see what happens. Though I’m still enjoying this process of rambling around in my head for the time being too.

The main challenge has been to keep my rambles on topic. As well as ideas for writing, my brain has started to consider again where I’m going with this blog. I’ve finally got round to setting up a Facebook page, mainly because I want to be able to share my posts with people through that medium but don’t want to clog up my personal feed. That’s got me thinking again though about what my focus is in my little corner of the internet. It’s always been fairly diverse, but actually recently it’s starting to settle into two distinct channels, writing and unschooling, with other posts hanging their themes off those.

I suspect that, a little further down the line, I might look to split those channels into two separate blogs. Possibly even explore the unschooling one as a potentially ‘commercial’ enterprise (firmly in inverted commas because it’s a territory I’m not sure about at all…)

We shall see.

In the meantime, though, I need to keep reminding myself that all of that is sterling distraction work for the writing I should be focusing on. And I certainly don’t need any more distractions just yet…

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