Tag Archives: juggling

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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And relax… (sort of)

On Thursday evening, I wrote until my brain could take no more and went to bed frustrated.

On Friday morning, I got up in time to shower and feed and dress Arthur and I before we had to leave the house just after half past eight, managing to squeeze a couple more hundred words in between it all: but still it wasn’t enough.

Once Arthur had been safely delivered to his gymnastics class, I sat myself down with my laptop. I was surrounded by screaming kids and chatting mums, and had just under an hour to bring my story to its conclusion. And with seconds to spare before I wrapped Arthur up in a cuddle and we continued with our day, this happened:

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Having set myself a somewhat cursory target of 90,000 words, and broken it down way less rigidly than with my first two novels, I was a little intrigued to discover that as I approached that magic number the story did appear to naturally be coming to a close. I had been all prepared, after the two ‘deadline extensions’ I already given myself, to move the goalposts yet again even after that progress bar had turned its satisfying deep green. But, as it turned out, only 784 additional words were needed before I could safely say that the first draft was done.

It’s a good feeling, coming to the end of a first draft. Even now that I understand just how much work goes on after that point – way more, actually, in terms of both hours and mental exertion – it still feels good to get all of the raw material out of my head and onto (virtual) paper.

And so, to an extent, I can now relax. Except, of course, I can’t.

Along with all of the other endless jobs on my to-do list, I have set myself a bit of an epic mission for this summer. It’s the mission that, if I’m successful, will take me beyond the realm of ‘someone who writes’ into the heady heights of ‘professional writer’.

It is the mission to get published.

I’m keeping an open mind at the moment about how that will happen and with whose help, but it really is time I started to take things to the next level. I haven’t had the confidence before now to really push it, and even now I’m quaking in my boots a little.

But I’ve written three whole books.

And whilst they all still need a bit more work, I have reached a point where I don’t think I can justify turning my attention to another before the ones I’ve written are given a real opportunity to shine.

So there won’t be much relaxing here. There will be lots of research, and investigation, and soul-searching, and letter-writing, and self-promotion. But hopefully by the end of it, once this latest first draft has sat for a while and is ready for me to turn my attention to it once again, I will have a much clearer idea of where it’s all going.

That’s the plan, anyway…

 

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Stolen moments

I had such a lovely writing day today.

I don’t take any of my writing time for granted: it took years for me to pluck up the courage to put pen to paper at all, and when I was teaching full time I rarely had the headspace to write anything longer than flash fiction, or sometimes a bad poem.

Getting stuff written has moved much higher up my list of priorities since I became a mum, but between entertaining a three year old and a growing smorgasbord of employment it can still be hard to find the time. I’m still working on making mornings work, and otherwise guiltily catching up during Arthur’s afternoon nap when I should really be focusing on the rest of my to-do list.

Today, though, was different.

I dropped Arthur off at forest school at 9.15. That may seem like an innocuous statement, but it was actually the first time we’d left him with anyone other than my folks, and the first time he’d been in an ‘educational setting’ for longer than the hour his gym class lasts. I wasn’t worried: the couple of sessions I’ve been to with him convinced me that it was exactly the sort of environment I wanted him to be spending his time in. Still, though, his wobbling lip and wide eyes almost weakened my resolve.

But I have a deadline to keep. And I’ve already put it back twice.

I wandered off through the little village of Stoke Gabriel, heading for a cafe by the waterfront. It was such a beautiful morning that I decided to start off outside, pitching myself up with my laptop on a bench overlooking the weir. There’s definitely a lot to be said for not being tied to my desk.

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After the first few hundred words, I decided I needed a coffee. So inside, for a flat white and a glass of water and a few more hundred words.

Then when I hit a wall again, I went for another meander. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I figured it would be difficult to get lost. I found a bench, up above the road with a view down towards the river, just at the point when the next flash of inspiration hit, so I stayed there for a while.

My last port of call was a pub, for a pint of lime and soda and a little burst of internet. Despite being connected to the world I still managed to get something written, ending my morning’s mobile session at 2,669 words.

What was especially wonderful was that I hadn’t had to rush. I had almost four hours of writing time in total, broken up by walks to kick my brain into gear again. And in that time I could let my mind wander too, and find new ideas in my daydreams.

I’m not sure how often I will have days like today – in the time I was gifted or the headspace to use it well – but I am grateful for this one I had.

And, at the end of it, I am that little bit closer to achieving my goal…

 

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Why I am standing with our junior doctors

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In just over six weeks time, my husband will become a junior doctor.

Juggling the last five years of training with family life has been hard – the long commutes after sleepless nights, the hours of study when our son just wants to play with his Dad, the fear that the dream of being a doctor that has lain dormant for twenty years maybe really isn’t meant to be – but we have got there.

And now, just when he should be celebrating, just when we are on the cusp of this next phase of our lives, we are faced with this government who are intent on tearing the NHS limb from limb – starting with, or so they thought, its weakest members.

But junior doctors are not weak. Each and every one of them has already fought so hard to be where they are right now, has made tough choices, and sacrifices, and turned away from much easier paths to pursue the one they have chosen.

They are standing up today for themselves, for their families, for their patients, for future generations of doctors – and for the very existence of our NHS.

I, along with every single one of my friends and family, am standing with them.

And we will not be ‘defeated’ by the threats of the Tories, whatever base, bullying tactics Hunt and his cronies resort to.

A writing recovery plan

I’ve said it before, but it’s a game of peaks and troughs this writing lark.

I had a real burst of motivation after my last little dip, reminding myself why getting up early was good for my soul as well as a handy window for escaping into the world of my novel.

But since then life, as it is wont to do, has thrown me a bit of a curve ball. I’ve taken on some new responsibilities for the Connecta Lives blog, I have an epic to do list to help get Shoalstone Pool ready for summer, the school where I am a governor is facing a new raft of challenges. And perhaps most importantly right now the #THISislearning campaign that I have set up with Maddy in protest against what the SATs are doing to our children is gathering steam and demanding a lot of our attention.

All of this is good, and important, and exciting. But none of it is doing anything to give me the headspace I need to write – not even with 6am starts and lemon water.

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The lighter mornings have thrown another challenge into the mix. They are great on one level: the creeping peachy light of the morning sun across the bay is undoubtedly much more conducive to getting up than inky blackness. Unfortunately this also applies to Arthur, and whilst he is remarkably good (for a three year old) at keeping himself entertained in his room until the gro clock says it’s morning it is getting increasingly hard to hold on to that little window of time as my own.

I still have to write, though – to meet my goals, and to release the pressure in my brain. It’s not that I have nothing to write about – I know the direction this story is going in, and my characters are clamouring for my attention. It’s just that it is hard to hear them over the noise of everything else. But I have to find a way.

So I’ve come up with a bit of an action plan. Nothing fancy, but enough hopefully to keep things ticking over and move that progress bar from orange to green.

YESTERDAY I measured up and ordered some blackout blinds for Arthur’s room. I’m not entirely sure how we’ve gone three years without them, but they are definitely needed now.

TODAY I am going to take stock (starting here) and clear as much as of my to do list as I can, hopefully clearing out some space in my brain in the process.

TONIGHT I am going to really make the effort to get an early night, and give myself the time to wind down from screens before then. I’m drifting back into night owl mode, and the lack of sleep is slowing me down.

TOMORROW morning, and every morning, I am going to make sure I write something – anything – to keep the progress on my novel going in the right direction. My daily targets have crept back over the 1500 word mark, and for me that is very rarely achievable. Any words are better than none though, so I’m not going to let the fear of not meeting those targets stop me from writing anything at all.

Next WEEKEND, and two weekends after that, I am going to maximise the time I have on the train for two whistlestop visits to London to catch up and get myself properly back on track. When I set my targets in the first place I didn’t include the weekends in my writing schedule, but now it is time to make the most of that little buffer.

It doesn’t really matter (not to anyone other than me) if I miss my self imposed deadline and the writing of this first draft spills over into June. But it’s hard to juggle writing with everything else that’s going on, and if I don’t set myself some boundaries (and do my very best to stick to them) I worry that I may not find the time to write at all.

And now I’ve set this plan out in black and white I’m hoping it will make it all the more likely that I’ll follow it. Not least because you lot can help keep me on track if I don’t…

 

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Why early mornings are good for my wellbeing as well as my word count

My efforts to be an early bird have ground to a halt since coming back from holiday. It was only a week, but I clearly did such a good job on getting away from it all and relaxing that I have completely forgotten how to motivate myself to get up in the morning – and it’s not just my writing that’s suffering.

Before I went away I had a post milling around in my head about how many unexpected upsides there were to getting up early to write: now seems like a very good time to get it down, and remind myself of all those reasons in the process…

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It makes for a much healthier start to the day

I’m not entirely sure why, but waking up earlier seems to reduce my desire for coffee. I find myself feeling all virtuous and full of good intentions, so my early-morning typing will be accompanied by hot water and lemon and a large glass of berocca – saving the all-important coffee for later. My mum has long extolled the benefits of lemon water first thing, and it certainly seems to have some sort of magical properties! It might just be that I’m taking time to hydrate myself properly before starting on the caffeine, but for whatever reason that just doesn’t seem to happen when I’m getting up an hour or two later with a toddler scampering around my ankles.

It lets me focus on writing before my head gets too full with everything else

I’ve written about the positive effect starting early has on my writing before, and in the six weeks since then my word count has climbed by almost 25,000 to 38,000 words. I’m not going to pretend those words have always been easy to come by, but they are a damn sight easier to put my finger on first thing in the morning than later in the day. The last two days, having wasted away those precious minutes with the snooze button, I’ve tried to sit down and write in the afternoon – but nothing. Not a jot. There is simply so much else going on in my world that even if I turn over my to do list it’s still glaring at me from the corners of my mind. First thing in the morning, it doesn’t get a look in – I’m pretty sure my brain knows that it should count itself lucky enough that I’m even awake, let alone tackling all the other things I should be doing.

It means I can spend the rest of the morning playing without feeling guilty

Playing is a serious business in this house. Having taken the decision to unschool my preschooler rather than sending him to a childminder or nursery to engage in the early years curriculum, I know that I have a responsibility to tune in to his learning needs – which at the moment are all about play. He is getting increasingly good at playing independently, but he of course loves it when I join in – and we try to get out of the house as much as we can too, to meet friends or do group activities or just explore our neighbourhood. If I’m not careful, I can spend half of this time with my mind elsewhere or my eyes on my phone, trying desperately to fit in little snippets of work. But if I’ve already squared away a good stint of writing before he’s even up then I find it way easier to be fully present for this time, saving up the other tasks for when he’s chilling in the afternoon.

It lowers my stress levels for the rest of the day

This completely links to the point above, but I think it’s important not to underestimate how powerful starting your day with a good dose of achieving is for your self-esteem. When I don’t manage to get up to write, I spend the rest of the day chasing my tail, being eaten away by the niggling feeling that I’ve let myself down.

It makes me less tired

Now this one’s a bit counter-intuitive, but I guess makes sense when considering everything else. My justification for the repeated tap of the snooze button as 6am gradually disappears from view is that if I could only get a bit more sleep then the rest of the day would be so much more manageable. But that never actually seems to be the case. If I don’t take charge of my day, and instead fritter away the beginnings of it in broken sleep, then when I am finally forced out of bed by a hungry toddler I am way more weary than I would otherwise have been. And it doesn’t go away either – without the boost of confidence and everything else that comes from starting early I find myself sleepwalking through the rest of the day, counting down the minutes until I can collapse into bed again. Until the evening of course, when that second wind creeps over me and makes me stay up way too late. Again.

Now I realise that for those of you to whom early morning chirpiness comes naturally much of this will seem painfully obvious. But it does not come naturally to me: I have, for as many of the last thirty-seven years that I can remember, been a fully fledged night owl.

The time has clearly come for a shift, though. And I’ll be taking these words with me to bed tonight to make sure that at 6am tomorrow morning that snooze button doesn’t even get a look in.

 

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You Baby Me Mummy

On women and writing

My son has not been 100% the past few days, which has meant much more time sitting on the sofa having cuddles than usual. During one of these moments yesterday afternoon, whilst savouring the calmness of the three year old nestled at my chest, I had a bit of a revelation.

I found myself looking at my bookshelves, idly imagining my own published work sitting up there one day, and then it struck me: the overwhelming majority of the books in my life were written by men.

I couldn’t in that moment put my finger on why that was, but I knew it was significant for me – as a woman and as a writer. So today, what with it being International Women’s Day, I decided to do a little investigation.

As I am so often wont to do, I turned my gaze inwards first: tried to work out what it was about me that had led to such a literary gender imbalance. These books I have around me chart my reading history back to my teens. I have never got around to organising them in any particular way, and the resulting cacophony of titles is not easy to analyse, but however many times I went back again to look the facts remained the same: I have, over the past twenty years of my life as an avid adult reader, amassed a library which is almost entirely male-generated.

McEwan, Banks, Rushdie, Murakami, Self: all literary idols of my teens and twenties, all fantastic authors in their own right, but peculiar role models for a young woman trying to find her way in the world.

I didn’t think so at the time of course. I remember having a strong desire to be taken seriously as a reader and as an intellectual in my very male-dominated social and family circle. I remember arrogantly dismissing Austen – the only female author I remember studying at school – for what I saw as her obsession with vacuous romance. I remember being switched off by chick-lit as frivolous and a waste of reading energy (though I never looked beyond the covers to find out if that was actually true).

Of course as time went on I read – and loved – books by female authors too. Just not enough.

As my mind shifted to the context of all this I began to wonder whether it was merely a phenomenon isolated to my own book collection. I suspected probably not – certainly my sense of the world of the professionally respected writer is of one that is very male dominated. But I had already established that my lifetime’s research in this field was somewhat skewed, so I figured it was worth investigating.

Turns out it wasn’t just me. A quick google search threw up a woman whose novel proved eight times more attractive to agents when submitted under a male pseudonym; a study which revealed that 75% of the books reviewed in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement were written by men. I’m sure further research would have given me plenty more reassurance, but I’m pretty confident that it’s not just my bookshelves that are biased.

The reason why is somewhat more elusive. Are there actually less female authors than male ones – or good ones anyway? This question was explored at length in a fascinating essay written by Francine Prose in 1998, resurfacing when V.S.Naipaul expressed a similar disparagement towards Jane Austen as my teenage self in comments he made in 2011. The answer is of course complex and multilayered, with a multitude of reasons why women write, or don’t, and why people want to read what women write, or don’t (or at least what the publishers think in this regard).

A hypothesis that has recurred over the years is that is has something to do with motherhood: that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. Or if you are going to succumb to kids, just make sure you only have the one.

For me, the opposite is true. Or at least I thought it was. I found becoming a mother extremely motivating – liberating, even – and the birth of my son will always be intrinsically linked with my reasons for finally putting virtual pen to paper and writing my first novel. However as time goes on it has all started to feel a little self-indulgent, a waste of my ‘potential’, of my ‘education’  – both the desire to plunge myself headfirst into parenthood, and the equally strong desire to use all my spare moments to write. The voices from my past are surfacing and telling me that just writing and looking after a kid are hardly valuable uses of my time. So those precious minutes are being eaten away because I feel like I should be earning money (though I am lucky enough at the moment not to strictly need to) and because I feel that I should be doing something ‘worthwhile’ (though I have already dedicated ten years of my life to teaching).

I am wondering now, as I work all this through, whether I shouldn’t be seriously rethinking my priorities. But that would mean a commitment to this role of Writer, an assertion to myself and to others that I am good enough, and it is worthwhile.

I’m not sure that I’m there yet. Though coming across another article about how what separates unsuccessful female writers from successful male ones is the very reticence that I recognise wholeheartedly in myself has given me even more pause for thought.

And I am glad to say that my explorations did not throw up only negatives. I found this article about ten women authors who published after age forty particularly encouraging – there is still time, and hopefully plenty of it.

Also encouraging is the fact that one of these authors is currently sitting on top of my reading pile: a reading pile which for perhaps the first time ever is made up of books entirely written by women.

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None of this is by design. I never consciously set out to not read books by women, or indeed to seek them out as I grew older. But the shift in my literary gender balance is not entirely accidental either. I think it speaks to where I am right now with myself, as a woman and as a writer.

I’m still figuring out exactly where that is, but once I do? You’d better watch out, world.

 

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