Tag Archives: creativity

The call of the wild

At a meeting of The Singapore Writer’s Group this week, I was reminded of the importance of playing and experimenting with language. When you’re busy learning the craft of writing a novel, as I am, there’s a tendency to focus on the mechanics – character development, dialogue, structuring a plot.

I think carefully about the words I use because I want to achieve an economy of language and capture exactly the right metaphor and so on. Mastering all this brings great satisfaction, but in this pursuit of writing a well-crafted book that will sell, have I forgotten to play? I mean really revel in words and let the imagination run wild.

Authors do play with language but then they tame it, discipline it, strap it down and, after a while, it comes out walking to heel. This is part of learning your craft. You learn to use language effectively to create story, suspense, subtext and to make your reader fully believe in your world.

Then a song-writer called Parijat Mishra read a short piece to our writers’ group that was like a wolf howl to my urban fox brain. He had wanted to write something like a dream, a piece of art, a painting with words. And so he read us Tough Syrup, (it’s the second story in his blog) which we decided was a ‘prose poem’. Me included. The automatic reflex to put it in a box. We loved it, were confused and impressed by it in equal measure and called for story, discipline. And that is what his work needs if his intention is to write a short story or a novel. But I don’t think this is his aim. Not with that piece, anyway. He’s an artist at play. He achieved what he wanted and created a piece of art. His imagery was disturbing, surreal and extraordinary. It was an outpouring of imagination, a dreamscape painted with words.

One writer saw it as a comment on the emasculated male in a female world, I saw it as a comment on living in Singapore where everything is made safe and how suffocating that can be. It provoked thought and we brought our own interpretations to it. And that, I think, makes it art. We recognised that it was raw and wild and ugly and beautiful.

I hope Parijat does develop and apply discipline to his writing because his work reminded me of Kurt Vonnegurt and that kind of talent should be recognised. And at the same time, I like that it’s wild. I like that it roams the boundaries. So thank you, Parijat, and thank you to The Singapore Writers’ Group and all who shared their work, for the inspiration.

Green nail polish, new horizons.

Today I am 43. It’s the beginning of the rest of my life. It starts with green nail polish. Then I’m going to become the greatest writer of my time.

In small steps, of course. A word at a time, a book at a time. But the new reinvented 43-year-old me is thinking big. Somebody’s going to be remembered as a great 21st century writer. Why the heck shouldn’t it be me?

The green nail polish is a celebration of my quirkiness; it’s saying it’s ok to buck trends, to wade against the flow, to take risks. I am letting out my inner fabulousness.

Here’s how this surge of energy and statement of ambition came about:

Yesterday, I went to a creative part of town. I know Singapore is not the most creative place in the world, but there are pockets of creativity and new ideas. Tiong Bharu is one of them. I was in a cafe with my laptop, slowly and painfully writing. Starting a book is the most difficult bit. I have not yet hit ‘flow’, that magical point when the characters come alive and start doing unexpected things and you’re living the story with them. Anyway, in the scene I was writing I referred to Alice in Wonderland.

After I was done, I went to my favourite indie bookstore Books Actually. In the window was a copy of Alice in Wonderland, with artwork by the brilliantly bonkers Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. I bought it as a birthday treat to myself.

At the cash till, I flicked through a little book It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be by the advertising guru Paul Arden (click for inspirational quotes). I read it first thing this morning and it was the perfect hit of positivity. It’s about thinking big, having vision and laughing in the face of failure along the way. It’s about thinking differently, turning things on their head, taking risks, thinking beyond what’s fashionable or acceptable and making things happen. It’s about putting a new spin on things.

So I will no longer worry about the market or concern myself with whether it’s what agents or publishers are interested in. I will be the best writer I can in aiming to be the greatest. Past failures are my path to success.

As Winston Churchill said: ‘Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.’

Although, I admit, I did have a wobble on the enthusiasm front. To the extent that I gave up, threw my toys out of the pram and decided to do a course to teach English as a Foreign Language. (Turned out to be the creative equivalent of joining the Foreign Legion.) This was a good thing because it so clearly wasn’t me, it reaffirmed my belief in myself as a writer.

When I write, I am most myself. So I’m not so much reinventing myself, as my ambitions. Paul Arden says: ‘You need to aim beyond what you are capable of.’ At first, that seems like a contradiction. But, giving it more thought, it makes perfect sense. How else do we grow?

Then you have to make the vision of yourself reality. You learn to do this through experience and mistakes. Excellent. I’m on the right track then. Talent helps, of course, but it’s the desire to be the best that counts, he says. ‘Everybody wants to be good, but not many are prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to be great.’ (See YouTube link of Yayoi Kusama showing what it takes.)

He also talks about promoting yourself, putting yourself out there. This is more difficult for me. We, girls especially and English girls possibly more so, are taught not to show-off, gloat, crow, or otherwise talk ourselves up. We can quietly know we’re great, but it is not demure, lady like, or appropriate to sing about it. This attitude gets you absolutely nowhere. It may get you liked but it does not bring you success or wealth. So I need to cultivate this along with my writing. Ego. It’s not a bad thing.

Sparkly green nails

Green nails look great flashing across my keyboard.

So I’m here, me with the sparkly green nail polish that is part Wicked Witch of the East, part Absinthe fairy and a lot Cabaret. Me, failing extravagantly and learning from mistakes on the path to success. No more Mrs Nice Girl. This time I am, to coin Justine Musk’s  phrase, bad-ass. And I’m on my way to becoming the greatest writer of my time. (How am I doing on the ego front?)

Going for gold.

What a change to have role models like Jessica Ennis for the next generation of young women. What a change to see triumph born of hard work, grit and determination rather than talentless celebrity born of reality TV shows. What a change to see that beauty is  strength of spirit and a radiant smile rather than an inch of make-up and a pair of fake boobs. Perhaps now girls will aspire to be sportswomen rather than WAGs?

The likes of Jess Ennis and the female rowing team have certainly been an inspiration to me. They have rolled with life’s knocks and gone on to win gold. Jess Ennis suffered a setback in 2008 because of stress fractures to her right foot and missed the Beijing Olympics as a result. This meant switching her take-off leg in the long jump from her right to her left, retraining the neurological pathways until her weaker, less favoured leg was of Olympic gold standard. That takes guts.

Rower Katherine Grainger is an inspiration for keeping her eye on the prize and pursuing gold at the age of 36. Having won silver three times, and at an age when many would have considered it less likely she could do it, she won through.

And Helen Glover, whom with Captain Heather Stanning, won Team GB’s first gold medal in the women’s pairs, having started rowing only four years ago. Glover said: ‘If I can do it so can you. Take the chance to do something, do anything. Work hard and do your best and you can achieve anything.’

My something is writing. And I will work hard to write a brilliant novel and get it published. The world owes me nothing. It’s no use licking my wounds and sulking. I can do better than my last book. And I will. I am taking on this Olympic spirit.

I’ve highlighted three women at the Games but all the athletes put in time and effort day after day with relentless focus. Many medal winners talked of picturing or planning their race in their heads, of not thinking about others in the race because it would divert them from their goal. It was about the vision, deciding that the gold medal would be theirs.

I am focusing on writing, I am envisioning my idea coming together, of achieving flow and working day after day to finish my novel. I will write word after word, paragraph after paragraph, scene after scene and keep going until my book is finished. Then I will get the best agent to help me get it published, I will do whatever redrafts are necessary to make it perfect, I will roll with the knocks and I will not give up. I am not in control of the reviews or the sales. All I can do is write the best book I can, although I’m also envisioning rave reviews and high sales, and dammit, why not go the whole hog and envision the film too. I am going for gold.

How about you?

The Bear Awakes

Like a bear in hibernation, my creativity awakes, stretches and peeks out of its hidey hole. Last summer was a long, dark winter as far as my creativity was concerned and it’s only just now that the snows are beginning to melt. Did I just catch a delicious whiff of inspiration? Time to shake off my winter sloth and munch on the green shoots of an idea. ‘The bees are buzzing in the tree to make some honey just for me.’

Wordism: ‘Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife,’ as a famous bear once said. (There’s so much wisdom in that song, don’t you think?)

I am taking the first tentative steps into writing the new book and doing my happy bear dance.

What got me writing again? Writing, got me writing again. But these things can’t be rushed. I’m not someone for whom inspiration strikes like a thunderbolt. It is more a slow dawning. I’ve only written a few hundred words but it is a start and it’s helping to crystallise the story in my mind. I’ll take you through the process so far.

I started with the idea. Modern day girl meets suffragette. That appealed. That, I could work with. That, I could pitch to a publisher. I began researching suffragettes on the web and came across one who interested me in particular. But this isn’t an historical novel. It’s a contemporary story with an historical twist. So I set to thinking about my modern day girl and her story, while letting my initial research mulch down.

I knew her parents were divorcing, I knew she was obsessed with being skinny, I knew she had no idea what to do with her life. I didn’t yet know what she was passionate about.

I started writing in the first person, letting my character vent all her problems, hopes and dreams. This can be quite useful as a way to get to know your characters and their voices.

With this book, for some reason, I can’t launch straight into it. So after letting her vent, I wrote random scenes, which may or may not find their way into the book. Jasmine (Jazz), at home with her parents, Jazz with her friend Crystal, Jazz being told that her mum and dad are divorcing etc. And I’ve also been playing with the third person and the first person and thinking about how I’m going to tell my story.

As is often the case with me, the character I’m thinking about, Jazz, is a struggle and the one I haven’t thought about, Crystal, comes fully formed. In previous books, sometimes people have found my secondary characters more real or likeable. So perhaps there’s a clue there.

Wordism: Don’t over-think it. A character often comes to you as you write.

Anyway, I decided to borrow a bit from Crystal as hers seemed a better story and, in doing that, Jazz has come on in her own way. But still the plot wasn’t coming.

It was at this point I started blogging as well as doing my morning pages, which involves writing down everything on my mind when I wake up. Both have helped me pick myself up from last year’s rejections, formulate my thoughts and ideas, and find a way forward.

Lately, I’ve been putting my mind to plot but didn’t get beyond a series of events, which is not the same. And so I went back to my character. I hadn’t yet had Jazz meet the suffragette. And that was supposed to be the point of the book.

So that’s what I’ve been writing over the past couple of days and though I’ve not written reams, I did get into the flow. I was absorbed by it. I lost track of time. I was enjoying the process of writing again, it was triggering plot ideas. Woohoo! A major breakthrough.

Wordism: Forget the end product, enjoy the process.

It’s early days but the idea is awake, living and breathing. Soon I’ll be able to write that elusive first chapter.

And just because it’s fun and it’s in my head and because I think there’s some relevance to the state of mind you have to be in to write – relaxed, going with the flow, letting it come to you, here’s the song:

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
Old Mother Nature’s recipes
That brings the bare necessities of life

Wherever I wander, wherever I roam
I couldn’t be fonder of my big home
The bees are buzzin’ in the tree
To make some honey just for me
When you look under the rocks and plants
And take a glance at the fancy ants
Then maybe try a few

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They’ll come to you!

I don’t have writer’s block, I’m incubating.

To write, I need to have all chores done so there’s nothing nagging at me. My optimum time is late afternoon and into the evening. And I write in silence. Just my thoughts, my characters, and the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard.

At least, it’s always worked before. I would start writing and carry on (over a couple of years) till the book was finished. But, this time, I’m struggling to get started. To help me focus I’ve been trying to develop a way to signal to my brain that I’m leaving my everyday world and entering the realm of my imagination. Writer at Work. Do Not Disturb.

So yesterday, back from holiday, raring to go with New Year zeal, I sat at my desk and thought about a little writerly ritual to get me in the zone. Perhaps I should try music, I thought, and put on Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Sisters are Doing it for Themselves’ (my book involves a suffragette). But it just made me dance round the room, which was fun but it wasn’t helping me to write. Scrap music. Silence is golden.

I lit a candle. Took some calming deep breaths. Waited. Nothing. A book of children’s poems was next to me. I bought it after I found myself playing with words in my head one night, which I took as a sign that my creative mind was limbering up. Typical! Just as I’m falling asleep. I woke the next day singing Spike Milligan’s poem.

On the Ning Nang Nong where the cows go bong and the monkey’s all say boo, there’s a Nong Nang Ning where the trees go ping and the teapots jibber jabber joo.

I had actions and everything. My husband, Rob, is used to this sort of thing by now. I was enjoying the musicality, the fun and the nonsense of the language and thought this should be fostered. I also needed to know the rest of the poem. So I bought a book called ‘Read Me and Laugh. A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year’.

I read my poem for the day. Still nothing. I read over some preliminary scenes I’d written to explore my character. That would surely trigger me into writing. Nothing. Nada. It wasn’t happening.  In desperation, I picked up my Mslexia diary, which has top writing tips for the year.  I can’t tell you the relief of reading that psychologists have identified a stage in creativity known as ‘incubation’, the period between the moment of inspiration and starting to realise the idea in a piece of work.

‘Many writers experience incubation as writer’s block. Instead of welcoming it as part of the creative process, they (we) often panic and may end up abandoning the idea they’re working on.’

That’s me. I did exactly that in the summer. Ditched an idea I was working on because it wasn’t coming and I concluded I was writing the wrong thing. When it started happening with my new idea, I thought something was wrong with me. I wasn’t trying hard enough.

I do not have writer’s block, my idea is incubating. That sounds much more active, something is happening, even if it’s just in my head. The idea is baking like the proverbial bun. I am incubating my creative baby and it will come when it’s good and ready.

Feeling better, I decided to dip into ‘Writing Fiction. A guide to Narrative Craft’ by Janet Burroway and opened it at the section headed Keep Going. Surely a sign. In it, she tells us that W.H. Auden observed that the hardest part of writing is not knowing whether you are procrastinating or you must wait for the words to come.

That’s where I’m at. But if Mr Auden has been there too, then I’m in good company.

Writing on skis

Happy new year from Switzerland! All the ones – 1.1.11 – that’s a date that truly sounds like a new beginning. I am breathing Alpine air, surrounded by sparkling white mountains and snow laden fir trees and feeling optimistic about the year ahead. Objective: to complete the first draft of a novel and then to get a book deal. But one thing at a time. First, write the thing.

Hmmm. With Christmas and my skiing holiday, I’ve not been getting much writing done. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it because producing a novel involves as much thinking time as physically getting words onto paper. And you also have to live life and ‘fill the creative well’ in order to have stuff to write about. Not that I plan to have a skiing scene in my book but just being open to life can also open the way to new ideas.

There are writers that say their best ideas come while doing something like driving or cooking, where part of the brain is on automatic and the rest of it is free to roam. The roaming part is relaxed and the subconscious is at work. It’s a bit like that craze some years ago – was it geometric patterns or pictures made of dots? I can’t remember exactly but you had to relax your eyes and suddenly you’d see an image in 3D. Well some activities, like driving, get your brain in that kind of state and ideas pop into focus.

It doesn’t work with skiing, however. Not for me. I’m too busy thinking, weight forward, flex knees and ankles, hips into the mountain, one knee forward, then the other knee forward, weight then unweight etc. I actually go down the mountain, repeating such things to myself. My whole mind is focused on staying on my skis. There are so many things to think about at the same time and if I’m not doing one element, it throws everything off balance.

Oh yes. Things have come on since ‘Bend zee knees!’ I have my husband, who is a former skiing instructor, yelling back up the mountain. ‘Puke position!’ By which he means I need to get my weight forward over my skis as I traverse so that if I were sick, the vomit would miss my boot bindings. Nice! Or, a personal favourite, ‘Tits to the valley!’, which means: keep your shoulders square down the hill. But it could be mistaken for some kind of mating cry.

All the various elements occasionally come together and I get into the rhythm and I’m in the flow and it’s a wonderful feeling. But such moments are transitory. Suffice to say my characters don’t get a look-in till the lift queue. At the moment my writing, like my skiing, is still in discreet bits – I’m going down the hill saying, develop character, develop story, develop plot, third person or first person? And then I fall over.

Hmmm. Less skiing and more time in the spa methinks.