5

Edifying Editing Experiences

Well! It has been a while, hasn’t it, since I last ventured a blog post. Is working very very hard a good enough excuse?

By working I don’t just mean my new paid employment. This takes up the first part of my week and involves a job back in the field of mental health. This is my ‘real’ work – the thing that isn’t writing, the thing that actually pays the bills. It also makes me feel like a bona fide member of society again after two years out of paid work caring for my dad and making progress with my books.

But, why shouldn’t being a writer and a carer also make me feel like a bona fide member of society? This is a question I often ask myself, and I suppose it comes down to what I’m actually paid to do. Maybe if (oops, I mean ‘when’!) we sell my book I will actually feel that my writing counts.

When I typed that last sentence I originally put ‘if I sell my book’, then I had to delete the ‘I’ in favour of a ‘we’. This highlights rather well the difference that having an agent has made. (Did you know I now have an agent? Did you know it took me 17 years on-and-off to get there? I know – I’m beginning to be a bore on the subject!). Anyway, I now have the lovely Julia Silk from MBA Literary & Script Agents on my side. And that’s what it feels like – that there is genuinely someone there for me, who believes in my writing and is working alongside me to make the book the best it can be with the aim of finding a publishing home for it.

The whole process of actually signing up with an agency has been pretty nerve-wracking as well as exciting. Firstly there was the trip to London to meet with Julia, and the relief of getting on as well as I thought we would from our telephone conversations and email correspondence. We see eye to eye on my writing and the things that need to be done, and I respect her professional expertise. I knew we could build a relationship of trust. Then there was the scary nature of contracts and all things legal – it was with great relief that I joined the Society of Authors as an Associate Member and received advice from them. A lot of hand-holding was needed. Finally there was the scary nature of handing over the whole manuscript for in depth perusal and editing suggestions from someone else.

For me my books are, cliché that it is, a bit like children. I’ve moulded and refined them, had critiques and feedback, edited and refined again, then sent them out into the world in what I felt was the best shape I could muster. The characters can get stroppy and determined to have their way, but you love them nonetheless. When you get an agent, or indeed a publisher, you are suddenly in deeper waters – trusting your book to the close scrutiny of people who have expertise in the industry but who may not necessarily agree with you about what’s needed. They also have invaluable insights into what will actually sell.

And so it was that I awaited Julia’s suggestions with trepidation. She painstakingly went through the whole manuscript and not only lightened it by 4,000 words, but recommended that I took out a further 5,000. Descriptions that interrupted the flow of the story or messed up the tension were gone, gone, gone. I opened the document nervously and started reading.

What a relief it was to find that, on the whole, I agreed with her suggestions! Even where she had excised passages I felt a little precious about, I could still see why they needed to go. In the whole manuscript there was only one suggested deletion that I have asked to remain in!

Furthermore, the process of my own edit and cull of words felt positive and liberating, and I do feel we have a better book for it. Working one particular character into the plot earlier and enhancing her role also worked well. The manuscript has now winged its way back to Julia and yet again the ball is in her court.

So editing has proved an edifying experience. Now there is just the task of refining and agreeing changes and Julia developing and delivering her pitch to her selected publishers. That, and beginning the process all over again on a whole new book!

And, as for my dad, he is settled and happy at a care home close to me. Although his cancer is proving a little troublesome and his memory remains largely non-existent, we are going out together at least twice a week enjoying strolls with his dog (who is homed with a staff member), concerts, and plenty of meals out. Today we went out and bought him a sunhat. Of course he chose a classic and elegant design just like him!

MAD MOMENT

Setting off for a 10 mile walk over Beeley Moor with a forecast of rain, rain, rain! That, and the fact that there were 15 of us who risked it…

Image:  annedegruchy.co.uk - Beeley Moor

MARVEL MOMENT

Just being back in a job and enjoying it!

© Anne de Gruchy

8

A ‘Thank You’ to Eva Koch

Today is the last day of my six-week stay at Woodbrooke Quaker study centre for my Eva Koch scholarship.

It has been an amazing and privileged journey to be a research scholar here. I have worked alongside three other wonderful Eva Koch scholars, all with their own special areas of interest. We have (nearly!) completed our studies and done presentations of our work at an open meeting for those who were interested.

It has felt good to be part of the community here: to see people come and go as courses finished and new ones started; to meet people simply staying for a nights B&B because of a work commitment or family wedding nearby; to get to know some of the staff and tutors a little better.

Just before I came, I was offered a new job and thought that I would be returning home to the world of employed work again. Then the job offer was withdrawn because of a disagreement between Human Resources and the appointing officer about what constituted an ‘or equivalent’ qualification. I found myself wrong-footed and a bit rudderless, and have tried to use my time here to reflect, and to discern the way forward. I know this is still something I need to ‘sit with’, especially given my father’s increasing needs.

While I was here I read a wonderful book by Verena Schiller called: A Simplified Life: A contemporary hermit’s experience of solitude and silence. Of all the multitude of books that I have read since starting my studies, this has spoken to me most clearly. Verena writes of her life as a hermit in a small cabin on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. She describes, with a huge depth of humanity and spirituality, her lifestyle, the landscape around her, and the draw of the islands and coastline to monks and hermits across the ages. It is a deeply evocative book, as well as a deeply human one.

It was not Verena’s isolated life as a hermit that spoke to me – though I often have wishful visions of a tiny place somewhere beautiful and away from things – but the fact that she was able to wait for the leadings she was given to crystallize and become clear. I am an impatient person who tends to move back into my ‘thinking’ head-space when I should be waiting with God for the clarity that will come if only I would make time. Time and simplicity – my Eva Koch study area – go hand in hand I have found.

Simplicity is a deeply complicated area. If you are interested in my work there will be a series of six articles in The Friend starting in early October, and later on the Woodbrooke blog. I will also be sharing a piece of artwork that derived from the many beautiful words and meanings that simplicity had for the people I interviewed as part of my research; they were so rich and varied that I felt I could not simply represent them in writing. In the meantime, a big ‘Thank You’ to our tutors and the staff and guests at Woodbrooke, and to my fellow Eva Koch scholars – Rhiannon, Jane, and Joycelin (who couldn’t be there for the photo) – it has been wonderful getting to know you and working alongside you.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Eva Koch scholars 2016

MAD MOMENT…

Just doing this! Just applying and going for six weeks of immersive Quakerly research!!

MARVEL MOMENT…

Actually being here at Woodbrooke and the deep, rich seams that have emerged from my work and the interviews I conducted.

© Anne de Gruchy

2

Reflections on Simplicity

A sadness fell on me over the weekend – I realized that I had reached the half-way point in my Eva Koch study scholarship. I had to remind myself to focus on each moment in the day, and not hook into the recognition that there must come a point when I leave.

It is an immersive experience being here at Woodbrooke. You are part of this loose but close-knit community, whose membership ebbs and flows as courses and conferences come and go. There is the constant backbone of the staff and tutor teams, alongside volunteer teams who help in the garden and in welcoming and looking after guests. I have met so many interesting people, including some who simply wanted a different type of Bed and Breakfast for a business commitment in Birmingham.

You feel like an old hand here when you have seen several changes in the rota of Friends in Residence (FIRs!). But the whole is held together by the rhythm of the days: a half-hour Meeting for Worship after breakfast, coffee and tea breaks with home-made biscuits, mealtimes with wonderfully wholesome and imaginative food and a bell to request a moment of silence for thankfulness, Epilogue in the evening where we enjoy fifteen minutes of silence and reflection.

The rhythms of this place remind me of Celtic spirituality; of the focus on the spiritual connectedness of work and nature and community.

There are four Eva Koch scholars staying here this summer. We form our own ‘community within a community’ and it is a joy to get to know others who are immersed in their own fields of study. We have got to the point where we can break down in giggles together and make risky jokes (not at all a Quakerly thing, surely?). We are knitted into our little research community by a support network of tutors and meetings. We will be sharing our work soon in an open presentation for those who wonder what these weird wandering researchers are actually doing with their time.

When I started this blog post I had intended to tell you a little about my work – about the research I am doing into the Quaker testimony of simplicity and what it means to people today. I find that the work is less important than the process, and that I am learning to listen to the leadings God gives me from within and to be patient in allowing them to come to fruition in their own time.

Along the way, my research has involved conducting one-to-one interviews with 26 people, and these, alone, have been a revelation. The connections I have felt, and the openness and honesty people have entrusted to me, have really moved me. Many people thanked me and said how much the interviews had shifted and opened up things in their own lives. It is a two-way process – this research, this simplicity thing.

Eventually I will have written six articles for The Friend magazine and to be used as blog posts later, and I will have designed workshops and a weekend course. People have shared with me things that have inspired them in their thinking about simplicity – books, and blogs, and hobbies, and podcasts, and websites, and poetry, and even cookery suggestions – so I will also have an inspiring Resource List to offer people. You may have guessed by now that I might need a little more than my six weeks here to complete everything!

It is a joy, being here, and I am trying to be truly present to the gift I’ve been given. I wish you similar blessings in your own lives.

MAD MOMENT…

Joining a wonderful Five Rhythms dance course and dancing the wave through ‘Chaos’ with calf muscles that felt like someone had tightened them in a torture device!

MARVEL MOMENT…

During the same dance course: the intense peace of a walking meditation through the labyrinth; dancing outside on the grass with the sun shining down on us; the simple and deep connection that I developed with the other participants on the course.

2016-07-30 09.28.25 2016-07-30 09.30.20

© Anne de Gruchy

2

Experiencing Woodbrooke in Photographs

So here I am, investigating the Quaker testimony of simplicity at the wonderful Woodbrooke study centre. I am deep in interviews and books and writing and research. I am also deep in peace and goodwill and greenery. So here is a quirky tour by photograph…

* The beautiful sculpture of a Quaker Meeting by Peter Peri. *

2016-07-18 15.50.38

* On the first evening we held a Meeting for Worship and vigil to uphold those in parliament who were making the decision about the renewal of Trident. We sat in a circle and these candles formed a centre and focus. *

2016-07-18 21.58.46

* The terrace alongside the garden lounge at night – there are wonderful words of wisdom etched on the windows and doors of the garden lounge. *

2016-07-18 22.42.07    2016-07-18 22.43.22

* I don’t have to worry about missing my cat too much… *

2016-07-18 22.46.07

* The rose arch looks even better in the dark. *

2016-07-18 22.48.50

* A Friend-in-Residence allowed me to photograph her emerging flower arrangement. *

2016-07-19 10.57.27

* Wow! Looking back at the main building in thirty degrees of sunshine and flower meadow. *

2016-07-19 11.26.16

* The anti-torture garden has a beautiful statue, and wirework… *

2016-07-19 11.28.33    2016-07-19 11.29.13

* …with flowers winding through. *

2016-07-19 11.30.13

* The walled garden is full of vegetables, and fruit, and herbs, and… nasturtiums.  Three watering cans make an imaginative water cascade. *

2016-07-19 11.32.29    2016-07-19 11.33.36

* I met a member of the gardening team carefully clipping the Cloud Hedge.  There are so many beautiful trees – even a dead branch brings beauty. *

2016-07-19 14.07.23    2016-07-19 14.10.18

* Stepping stones across the stream – exploring the woodland beyond the lake. *

2016-07-19 14.16.54

* Word Labyrinth in the Garden Lounge. There is a grass version you can walk outside. *

2016-07-20 20.00.05

© Anne de Gruchy with thanks to Woodbrooke

0

Rejection Dejection

Rejection is never easy; and when it comes to the rejection of a novel that you’ve spent over a year of your life writing – well, it’s tough. That’s where I’m at.

Not only that, I have just spent the past ten months sending out my previous novel and that, too, has bounced back to me every time. I counted up the other day and was surprised that the tally was so low: 2 independent publishers, 2 novel competitions and 18 agencies – 22 rejections in all. This may sound a lot, but believe me the effort involved makes it feel like more.

A few weeks ago I started sending out my third novel. My writing, I like to think, is of a literary/commercial cross-over nature and this, in itself, poses dilemmas. For a start, literary fiction doesn’t pay – or hardly ever. And secondly, it doesn’t sell easily if you self-publish. I’ve taken advice from many writers, both published and self-published, and they all say the same. Literary is different. Don’t expect sales, don’t expect an income, and certainly don’t expect to market it yourself. Even the zealously, and very successfully, self-published author who ran the ‘Make Money from your Writing’ course that I attended last year told us that literary writing is in a category of its own.

I don’t want a lot in life. I want to write the type of books that intrigue me and include ideas that fire me up. I want to see them in print and available to buy online. I would like enough money – a couple of thousand pounds would do – to buy me enough time to begin my next novel. This, I am told, is entirely unrealistic.

There was a time when I still had visions of winning the Booker Prize. I was entirely and inappropriately confident. But you need that confidence, and mine carried me through the learning curve of writing my first novel. I was helped by a wonderful local writing group who supported and believed in me, and by the kudos of winning an Arts Council Writer’s Award to help me complete the book. When I came to marketing it I got some positive feedback from agents and some asked to see the complete manuscript (this is gold-dust!). Looking back, I didn’t realize how close I came. Sadly, though, my marriage broke up and my mental health dive-bombed. I was a part-time single mum who ended up having to move house four times in two years. Writing, and trying to sell my novel, was the last thing on my mind.

My second novel was written, and re-written, in fits and starts over several years. I still think it is a good book. Sending it out I began to feel as if the subject matter might be holding it back – it is a coming-of-age story set against the declining clothing industry in Nottingham in the 1990s. Never mind, I thought, I have the third novel to fall back on. The third novel, unlike the second, almost wrote itself. From beginning to end the process was a joyful and productive use of the time I took out from paid employment to help me cope with caring for my dad. The third novel, I simply KNEW, was ‘the one’.

The first time I sent it out I think I physically shook as I pressed the ‘send’ button. My precious new work was finally out there and it felt like make-or-break. If no one picked it up I would need to go back to a job and would lose the time to write intently and productively. I selected the agencies and agents carefully, my first choice being the one who had felt my second novel ‘stood out from the many we receive’.

So far I have had two rejections. I cannot describe how this has felt. The first ‘no’ sent my mood spiraling down and the second, a few days later, felt like a punch in the gut. It did not help that one of the agents described the subject matter as ‘an intriguing premise’ – the writing didn’t hit the mark. It makes me realize how stoically I took the rejections for my second novel. I felt like going down to the agency’s office and conducting a sit-in protest.

Friends and local writers have rallied round. We have discussed alternatives to the negativity of the word ‘rejection’ and several people have sent links to articles and web-pages outlining how famous novelists and novels were rejected many times before getting published. One Booker winning author had his first novel rejected 78 times before it was published. I am not sure that even I have that level of stamina. Having said that, I have four full-length manuscripts (including one non-fiction book) sitting on my shelf. How many people can say that?

So I will continue to send out novel number three. Meanwhile, I have also been scanning the jobs pages and working on my research into Simplicity for my upcoming summer scholarship. This is spawning some amazing material and ideas. I’ll have to be careful otherwise book number five will be queuing up on the shelf for its place in the rejection hierarchy.

MAD MOMENT…

My mad cat having mad-hatter moments chasing imaginary mice and real shoelaces at the bottom of my bed at 5am in the morning.

MARVEL MOMENT…

Seeing the amazing production of ‘COAL’ at Nottingham Playhouse – part of the neat (Nottingham European Arts and Theatre) festival. It was physical dance theatre that aimed (and succeeded) to share the experience of being part of the mining community as it was decimated by Thatcher in the 1980s. So powerful and sad and emotional and joyous, and just simply amazing to be part of the audience. It touched me especially because I lived for 20 years in the ex-mining communities in north-west Nottinghamshire, moving there just after most of the pits closed in 1985.

© Anne de Gruchy

0

Of Haemorrhoids and the Trustworthiness of Internet Information

I have haemorrhoids. Or piles, if you prefer. Or those funny little grape like protruberances that can appear at the entrance to our gut at a part of the body that is best not described in an up-market blog like this one! They are pesky things that are common as you grow older – particularly if you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) like me.

Now my IBS more-or-less disappeared the moment I went vegetarian and hasn’t bothered me since, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the haemorrhoids. Recently I had to go for a bowel scope – something that is now provided by the NHS to people of a certain age to check for signs of bowel cancer. The endoscopist took one look at my haemorrhoids and asked why they had not been banded – a procedure where they place a tight elastic band over aforementioned protruberances and wait for them to drop off through lack of blood supply.

Here we got to a problem because none of the health professionals involved seemed to agree about the best course of action. Only three years ago a consultant in Lincolnshire told me the haemorrhoids were too big to band and that the only option if I wanted to remove them was surgery – risky, painful, and not recommended unless you’re desperate.

I went to my GP who, in wonderful contradiction to the aforementioned hospital professionals, advised me to do nothing at all. All the procedures can be painful, he said, and the haemorrhoids can regrow. They’re a natural thing, he said, and unlike the hospital staff a GP sees the longer-term outcomes for patients. I should check out the information available on the internet and come back to him with my decision on how to proceed.

This was refreshing, but of course it immediately begs the question: what information can you trust when you search online?

The internet is an amazing thing, but you have to think about the motivation of the people who post information there. Those logging their experiences are more often than not those who have had a bad time of it. It is hard to get a balanced view. NHS sites are informative, but do not give success rates or long-term outcomes and tend to come from a Western, pro-medical intervention, point of view.

I attended a wonderful event recently at the brilliant Nottingham Contemporary. It was a discussion forum with the title ‘Media Gone Mental’. We considered questions about digital technology and our relationship to it. We looked at online identities, questions of intelligence and creativity, and whether digital technologies are good for us. The event was co-hosted by CaSMa (Citizen-centric approaches to Social Media analysis) and the Institute of Mental Health, as well as the Making Waves project that seeks to challenge current understandings about people who have experienced mental distress.

I love Nottingham for being a city that has so many stimulating opportunities to engage in discussion and debate. People are into ideas here, and proper communication. It was so nice to sit in a circle with an assortment of complete strangers, eating the best samosas I’ve ever tasted and, if not quite putting the world to rights, at least looking at the issues head on.

One of the questions posed at this event was ‘Is computer technology the democratization of knowledge or its commodification?’ This intrigued me, and I came to the conclusion that for me it is closer to the second of these options. Everything that is uploaded into cyberspace has a person or organization behind it – someone with an audience in mind and motives that are not always clear at first glance. Even our personal pages on Facebook and other social media represent filtered and untrustworthy versions of ourselves.

So, when researching my haemorrhoid options, I did so with my truth-seeker antennae set to maximum sensitivity. I searched on patient opinion sites, and NHS pages, and sites where companies have a stake in selling you something. I found alternative remedies that the GP had never heard about – nutritional supplements which, after much delving, appear to have some clinical evidence to recommend them. Unfortunately these are not currently available in the UK. I learnt a lot about haemorrhoids – and that I definitely want to avoid surgery.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total cynic. I find the information available online invaluable. But I like the internet best for the personal connections it allows us to engage in. The internet is an fascinating place and I have encountered some intriguing people and wonderful ideas there. It may not have helped my decision about haemorrhoid banding, but I’ve learnt a lot of other interesting stuff along the way.

MAD MOMENT…

Trying to work at my computer with my cat alternately sitting on my paperwork and sitting on my lap.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: cat on lap while working

MARVEL MOMENT…

Returning to the Carers’ Support Group after a gap of a few months. I had been distressed the last time I attended, and was worried about how this had affected the people there, but they are a lovely bunch of people and it felt good to go back. I also received a lot of support from the Alzheimer’s Society manager on my return – so a big ‘thank you’ to everyone involved.

© Anne de Gruchy

0

Lost Poetry

I’ve been looking for an old poem of mine and I can’t find a copy of it anywhere – either electronically or on good old-fashioned paper. I can remember that it described a spider’s web spun into the angle of a washing line, and the way the dewdrops hung there. I think I used the word ‘angel’ somewhere, and the image of the poem is very clear in my head. I remember that I wrote it during a workshop at one of my Christian Writer Group’s meetings. Yet still the poem remains lost.

It has surprised me how much of a loss this has been to me. It wasn’t a finished piece, but I still have a connection to it. In fact, very few of my poems are actually finished – for some strange reason I am more inclined to write pieces of 100,000 words than 100!

My search for my poem has called to mind another person who I know – a writer and musician. In recent years he has let go of most of his possessions, and those that he has retained remain packed away in boxes. Amongst the things he has lost or disposed of along the way are recordings of his songs and music, and copies of the books in which his writing was published.

At first, I found this incredibly difficult to understand. How could someone let go of things that to me would be so treasured, so much part of myself? Even the loss of one not very significant poem has upset me. After several conversations with my writer/musician friend I thought more about this and realized a surprising thing – that I actually envied his ability to let these precious things go.

Now we are moving on. We are moving into the realms of the Quaker testimony of Simplicity: of spiritual practice that is simply focused and leads into a life simply lead, where the emphasis is on how we engage with God, other people, and the earth and its resources – and not on ownership or possessions. We are also moving into the territory of some of the Eastern spiritual traditions: of meditation as a way to access higher levels of consciousness or connection with God, and of reaching a state where we are no longer attached to things – or even people or particular ideas.

I am trying hard, at the moment, to develop a regular routine of meditation. My aim is one 20 minute slot every day – a lower target than the recommended two – but, even so, I often fail to implement this. This is hard to understand, because when I do meditate it is the most wonderful experience – everything settles and becomes calm, and I emerge on a different plane than when I started. Sometimes, when my mood is low, a simple five or ten minute meditation unlocks my ability to function and helps me to get going with my day.

In support of this, I go to a regular Centering Prayer group. We meet fortnightly for prayer/meditation, and then we listen to and discuss a piece of relevant teaching – perhaps by Thomas Keating or Laurence Freeman. We support each other in our attempts to develop a regular meditation routine. I find that it helps, that – very gradually – I am developing a more reliable and attentive meditation practice.

So what of my poem? Maybe one of my writing friends will read this and remember it. Maybe the memory, or the connection the poem made when I read it out during our workshop, is all that is needed for it to be a creative part of this world whether or not I have a copy of it. Maybe I need to unattach myself from the memory of it.

Artists often experiment with work that is temporary. Their work may have a shelf life – like ice sculptures or things made from natural materials that decay – and sometimes they create a piece that is then destroyed deliberately. I once went to an exhibition at the National Centre for Craft and Design at Sleaford where the rooms were full from floor to ceiling with an intricate geometrical 3-D web of coloured threads. They were delicate and ethereal and you could walk amongst them. The installation was by Mexican born artist Gabriel Dawe. After each exhibition he would take down his work and squash the resulting tangle of thread into a small Perspex box – where it became compact and colourful and something altogether different.

Perhaps my poem, too, still exists but simply in a different form.

MAD MOMENT…

Purple hair with grey roots is not an attractive look. Time for a drastic haircut?!

MARVEL MOMENT…

Quaker Bible Study! Theologically fascinating, and not at all the same beast as the Bible studies I went to when attending church…

© Anne de Gruchy

2

Writing and Depression

I have been thinking a lot lately about how my depressive periods and my writing interconnect and affect each other.

You may have gathered that I am struggling at the moment with a serious episode of depression. For the first time since I gave up my paid employment to focus on my writing and caring for my dad I have been struggling to get up in the morning and to maintain a routine. Normally, I am the most disciplined of writers – up and dressed and working by 8.30 or 9.00am every morning, to the constant amazement of both myself and my friends. Now, as anyone who suffers with depression will know, I find it hard to motivate myself to do anything and I am far more likely to burst into tears than feed myself, change what I am wearing, or maintain contact with people.

A bigger problem in maintaining my writing when I am depressed is my relationship with computers. I am not sure why, but I simply cannot face technology when I am low. Perhaps it is the things that await me if I switch on, or look at, my computer or my mobile phone. All those emails which need attending to, and all those cheerful people on Facebook leading lives that only remind me how miserable and dysfunctional my own life has become.

Part of the solution is simply forcing myself to begin – to actually sit down with a pad of paper and begin a new scene from my novel, or to risk switching the computer on with the promise to myself that I will just type up something that I have previously written. I suffer from severe migraines that are aggravated by screen work, so I tend to write long-hand then type up my work later. I am a very fast copy typist, so this second stage acts as a mini-editing process and I do not need to look at the screen at all. I have found this works very well for me, both creatively and in resting my eyes, and it also gives me something simple to do when I am low. Once I’ve got going, I find I get absorbed in my work and it takes my mind off the more negative thoughts and makes the day a little more positive and productive.

It is a strange thing, the link between my depressive nature and this writing lark. I have always resisted the idea that there is some kind of ‘therapeutic’ reason for my writing. Why should writing be considered any more therapeutic than singing, or gardening, or meditation and prayer, or walking in beautiful countryside? All these things have proved to be beneficial to my mood, if only I can discipline myself to do them when I feel low. Yet people often ask: ‘Don’t you find writing therapeutic?’. Actually, I find it hard work. Enjoyable, stimulating, challenging, and sometimes addictive – but basically it’s something I have to discipline myself to do. A novel is a big BIG chunk of time and effort when it comes down to it.

On the other hand, I think I have begun to equate my writing with my mood cycles on a much bigger scale because it is what I turn to when I am unable to work. My first novel was written when I had lost a job following a period of depression and I found myself with time on my hands. I just decided to ‘write that book’ – you know, the ubiquitous book that people always talk about writing one day – and I actually did it. In fact I totally immersed myself in writing for several years – joining writing groups and attending writing courses, holidays and summer schools. I even won a Writers’ Award from East Midlands Arts, which boosted my confidence no end.

Then my health improved and I returned to work and my writing declined in proportion to the paid employment I took on. I continued writing occasional poetry and short stories, but stopped mid-way through my second novel. I have always found this – that when I am working I do not have the emotional energy or time to involve myself in major writing projects. Another break between jobs, and I re-worked and completed that second novel. Back to employment, and it was on the shelf again. Now, focusing on my writing again, I am sending it out to agents and publishers while working on my third novel. I am hoping, this time, to make serious strides forward with both books and give myself time to market them properly.

There is something that connects me to writing. Something intrinsic that makes me stay in touch with the writing community even when I’m in a fallow period. Maybe, despite sometimes thinking that I will never earn a living from my novels or see them in print, it is because I am a bone fide writer after all!

MAD MOMENT…

Doing the ‘Chili Con Carne’ song in a choir workshop with a raging migraine – surreal, or what?!

MARVEL MOMENT…

A new dementia blogging website and Twitter feed organized by the University of Nottingham’s IDEA project (Improving Dementia Education and Awareness) has been promoting some of my blogs about caring and dementia – and introduced me to a whole load of lovely new people in the Twittersphere who are talking about these themes. Discovering the inspiring #AlzChat!

© Anne de Gruchy

0

The Stutter and Flow of Writing

I have been thinking about my prose writing lately, and how different it is to write my blog as opposed to my novel.

When I write a blog post the writing seems to flow quickly. It is like a conversation with myself, or simply jotting down a stream of consciousness about something that has inspired me. I set it down and come back to it a week or two later, when I might fine tune or add to it. The whole process is quick and organic, and I rarely make big changes to what I have written.

By contrast, writing my novel can be like the proverbial pulling of teeth. It is hard work. There is a lot of background research to incorporate without letting the reader feel preached to or over-informed, and there are certain elements and events I need to cover when writing a particular scene.

When I wrote my first novel, I plotted too precisely before I started writing. I then found that I didn’t have room to let the pace ebb and flow, or the ability to go off at interesting tangents – if they presented themselves – without messing up the storyline. My second novel worked better, especially after a complete re-write, but working in the first person limited my opportunities for description and poetic prose. These aspects of my writing had been considered a strength in my first novel by some of the agents I had approached, so in my third novel I am trying to get a good balance of immersive description – the landscape is a character in itself – and storylines that intrigue and flow.

Granted, passages where I write conversation or action scenes seem to go smoothly and reasonably quickly, but the descriptive work is stop start – each word and phrase needing to carry its weight, and to balance in a poetic meter within the whole. I read back what I’ve written, then run on, then do this all over again, until a passage feels fully formed. The following piece is an example – not fully honed yet – of this type of writing:

It is summer. God’s sky is sent out in waves of insistent blue, pulling and tugging at the edges, distorting into reflective waves as if someone has flooded the crazy mirrors tent at the fairground with a palate of cobalt and aquamarine. It is too warm for some. Such an unusual thing, a hot English summer. Too dry for the farmers, and all the local people headed for Skegness.

In the village; silence, in gathered measure of time, sits across the land. The heat is myopic, shimmering a blur that sends people drowsily out into their gardens where they idle on deckchairs and tinker with the idea of breaking the hosepipe ban. The sky sighs and stretches, touching the land cleanly, as if contact with the soil would burn and tarnish. Earth and air meet, tensioned, a cautious meniscus of attraction.

I am learning the trick of balancing these intense passages within the wider flow of the writing, and am very excited about the way my current work is progressing. Still, the top tip I have ever been given as a writer holds good: always finish your writing session in the middle of a scene, or even a sentence. It makes it so much easier to pick up the flow of the writing in a seamless way when you start again the next day.

© Anne de Gruchy

0

Expandable Brains

Tonight, as I often do, I woke in the early hours with lots of interesting thoughts buzzing around my brain – things that intrigued me about humanity, and ideas I wanted to explore through my writing. I remember clearly thinking that I would never have time to pursue all these ideas, and that I could do with a bigger brain to hang onto and process all the information.

It is a sad preoccupation of mine at the moment that my memory and brain function are not what they used to be. I struggle to recall the names of people and places, or plays that I have been to and books that I have read. I cannot recall how a plot went, and why a particular book was a favourite. As a writer who thrives on analysis and the thrill of exploring things, I find this alarming. When I woke at 4am this morning I was presented with the clear notion that I need an expandable brain.

The next step my somewhat erratic cranial connections took me, was to think of my father and his shrinking brain – evidence of his dementia. Of course, like many people with parents who live with dementia, I worry that my own brain is going in the same direction – that, far from expanding, it is actually shrinking. It is so frustrating that, at a time in my life when I am bursting with energy and ideas to write about, my brain is stubbornly telling me: enough, enough!

Computers, of course, have no such problem.

When I first did a programming course, back in the 1970s, I never got to see the computer – it was a mystery machine that filled an entire room in some faraway corner of the building. We had to deliver our programs via a series of cards with holes punched in them. These were somehow fed into the mysterious machine and, if we were lucky, two weeks later a huge stack of concertinaed paper came back with the results. Things are very different now, but back in those days you could actually understand how a computer worked. I was able to write in several languages, including Basic and Assembler, and could see how a program – written through binary ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’ – could actually be entered into, and processed by, a machine.

But computers have moved on. Their trajectory has taken them from stacks of paper to tiny, tiny chips that hold unimaginable quantities of information. If I could capture it, I could carry round my entire brain library on a memory card that is smaller than my little fingernail. Barring dropping it down the loo or leaving it for too many hours in the Sahara, it would survive and perfectly reproduce the information, on request, ad inifinitum.

What intrigues me, though, is that the human brain does not just produce the information ‘on request’. There is no logic as to why particular thoughts surface in the middle of the night, or why a sudden theme of interest emerges. Some nights I am too drowsy to wake up and note down my ideas, and they are lost. Other times, like tonight, I haul myself from sleep and reach for my trusty pen and paper, and the thoughts survive and are jotted down. It is the creativity of the process, the illogical cross-connections and jumps, that make the output human and endlessly fascinating.

This is why I read blogs, and novels, and timelines, and twitterfeeds. It’s why I hold weird repeated conversations with my dad; and why I continue to write, not knowing who might see my work or whether I will ever make any money from it. The ideas insist on coming, and they connect us to each other and our amazing universe.

MAD MOMENT…

That cat of mine again! He must be double jointed….

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Cat on rug

MARVEL MOMENT…

Sitting in the sun by Beeston Canal at the remarkable Boathouse Café with a cup of tea and veggie sausage cob. Just one of those moments that was simple bliss in the middle of a difficult day.

© Anne de Gruchy