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Real Writing Advice, Part Two: Ideas

14 Apr


I am incredibly bored with reading writing advice. Like productivity blogs, writing advice blogs are the spam of the of the internet, even more ubiquitous than porn. And sadly, not nearly as much fun to look at.

Writing advice seems to say really dull things like, “Don’t worry about selling your story, worry about writing a story that will sell itself.” Yawn. Thanks, that’s really helpful. So, how do I do that? I would love to just sit at my desk and go, yes, I am writing a story that will sell itself.

My last post on this tackled the real issue of avoiding distractions. Distractions can be the devil and when you need to buckle down, that’s a great article for buckling down. But of course, if you have no ideas, all the buckling down in the world ain’t gonna help you create anything. It will only allow you to rack up hours of chair time and a real working knowledge of the wall in front of your desk.

Currently, as I have said, I am staying with friends. I had previously thought that my job allowed me enough free-time to write to my little hearts content. I will, just two days into living with friends, admit I was wrong. A lot of jaws of people who know me quite well are dropping right now, after all, I rarely admit to mistakes. But yes, my thinking that endless hours of alone time would breed creativity was wrong. I still maintain that, as described in Writing Advice, Part One, you do need time to yourself to get any real work done. But you need other people to gather up ideas.

So, here is my inane writing advice that I advise you all take…

1. Move.

No, seriously, move. It doesn’t matter how happy you are or that your brother lives just one house over and that you have your kitchen walls painted a beautiful shade of lavender that you spent hours choosing in Home Depot. There are no new ideas where you are. My friend Nick spent five years in China and not only did he learn Mandarin, he wrote a book which has just been published. Jason moved to the UK and learned to think outside of the box that he was always writing in when he lived in middle America. His writing has a new depth, not because he has a new cast of characters to write about, but because it is much easier to write about things that you are not in. A writer needs distance from their subjects, just the same way a scientist does: writing needs objectivity. So, while you should always write about what you know, you shouldn’t be doing what you are writing about at the same time. Sure, there are authors who write about their jobs while they are at them and some of these books are very successful. But they are exceptions. And, to quote my favorite comedian, Greg Behrendt, and also relate writing to dating: “You aren’t the exception. You are the rule.” So don’t try and argue because if you were writing something sheer genius at this moment you wouldn’t be looking for advice, you’d be writing. Or drinking.

2. Live with other artists.

Live with musicians, actors, writers, painters, designers…whatever you can find to live with. Even if they are crazy, you will probably learn a great deal about yourself by watching what they do. At best, you will find them kindred spirits you can bounce ideas off of and maybe even work together to create things. And, if you are a very lucky person, you will live with people who will understand that sometimes you get caught up in your work and forget to make dinner and then they bring you some. And sometimes they will bring you rhubarb cake with rose petals on it. But you have to be very lucky for that. It’s also useful as a time saving technique: if you already live with your friends, you aren’t wasting travel time and you can have a quick cup of tea or watch an episode of Arrested Development together when you need a break from work and then head right back to your room afterwards.

3. Go for a walk every day.

I love being outside and yes, vitamin D and sunshine are going to make you feel fabulous and refreshed every time. And you know what, take a camera. Take pictures of everything. Be a tourist in your own city. Look into people’s windows. Imagine what goes on in there. I used to live next door to some people that had two front rooms chock-full of religious iconography and heavy velvet curtains. I had all sorts of stories in my head about what went on in there. Talk to people. Pet dogs and smile at children, even if you don’t really want to.  Buy some flowers from a flower market or stall, which you can later put on your desk. Drink some juice and sit in the grass. Or stomp in puddles. Or make snowballs. Or whatever.

4. Cook every single day.

Make something in the kitchen, whether it’s a rhubarb tart or salmon and couscous, turn on some music, dance around the kitchen and make some food. Cooking is a creative art and you have to feed creativity.

5. Join a writers group.

Or a book club. Doesn’t matter really, although they are clearly two different things. But mainly, both will help you hone your debating skills and you get hear all sorts of opinions. You should always be sharpening your wit and also, ignoring the advice of Stephen King. Telling your opinions to people you don’t know is good practice for this. Maybe you will think everything everyone says is rubbish, but maybe they will say it in an interesting way and you can steal the dialogue.

6. Go for drinks with random people.

I once wrote a brilliant short story (if I do say so myself) based on a conversation in a pub between three mathematicians discussing how many cups of tea they would have to make for other people in order to get to heaven. It was a bizarre conversation, but it was an amazing jumping off point for me. And I would have never thought of it myself as I hardly know math at all. So, random people know random things that you had no idea about and again, you can steal the dialogue. Not that writers steal stories

7. Get experience.

You know, go to a yoga class or try out Buddhist meditation or take a philosophy class or read every book on the third bookshelf in the fourth stack over from the window in your library or volunteer to take dogs for walks at the SPCA. Maybe just get drunk and go swimming in Trafalgar Square. Whatever. Anything at all. Again, you will meet interesting people that you can steal ideas from, but also, you will now know something new and that broadens what you can write about, if you are intent on writing what you know.


8. Write short stories.

Novels are overwhelming and when you are sick of writing they will crush your soul. Write a short story. If that’s still too much effort, write a poem. I know, I know, poems are hard work. I have poet friends. But I did not say write a good poem, I just said, write a poem. Prose poems are great because they straddle the line between a short story and a poem and you can be vague and weird all you want. And honestly, once you get the emotions out, which is the crux of any story, you can focus on the details and the structure. So, a lot of times, a hastily written prose poem is basically brainstorming for a short story, which in turn can be a jumping off point for your novel. Baby steps is a perfectly legitimate way to walk.

9. Ignore everything but yourself.

I know, I know. Sounds like the opposite of everything else I have just written, but um, it’s not. Because when I say this, I mean, you rock. Wear what you want, sing aloud on the tube if you want, spend 15 minutes inspecting a piece of pavement that intrigues you. You aren’t wrong in wanting to do any of those things. Everything you like is amazing and you can write about anything you like. Don’t be afraid or ashamed or worried about what you write, that someone won’t like it or god-forbid-if-this-gets-published-my-mother-will-be-so-upset. Don’t “write a story that will sell itself”, write a story that you don’t care if it sells. Write something that makes you feel powerful or happy or cleansed. If later on, after you have something completed, you think to yourself, well, great, but if I just tweaked this here and rearranged that bit, then I bet someone would publish it and also, my mother wouldn’t cry herself to sleep at night, then do that. But save the first draft and keep it for yourself. Write honestly and worry about making it palatable for other people afterwards.

10. Watch a lot of TV.

I don’t know why, but it helps me when I want to write dialogue. I feel like even when I am not writing about anything even remotely close to what I am watching, just getting down the pattern and the pauses that people use when they are speaking is very helpful. Terrible TV with bad acting is useful as well, after all, you want to know what not to write as well, don’t you?

11. Eat cheese.

Cheese has an awful lot of morphine in it, which is relaxing in small amounts and downright ethereal in large amounts. I recommend Stilton with cranberries or blueberries mixed in, eaten with a french baguette.

12. Tell all of your stories verbally, on the phone, to your friends.

Don’t even tell them it’s your writing. Treat it like it’s gossip. Tell it and see what they think of the plot. They can’t see  you, so how your face moves or what you are doing with your hands can’t influence them. Tell it to a lot of friends because, as I explained in this post about the art of self-editing, each time you tell a story, you work out the important bits and refine your tale a little bit more. This should actually help you cut down the editing later on. Also, my friends and I had a discussion the other day in a taxi about men who sell derivatives for a job. Nothing against these type of men, as all the ones I have met are very very very nice, but it did take A FORTY-FIVE minutes to explain his job to me. M says, you should be able to explain what you do in 10 seconds or less. I took it one step further and suggested that your job title should be able to describe your job pretty accurately, if not your specific field. To relate this to writing: if it takes you longer to sum up your novel than it would to read the first paragraph of it, you don’t really know what’s going on in it. I freely admit that this is a main problem I have. My novel is not finished because I still can’t write a plot summary, so I’m going to keep working on it until I can.

13. Post-It-Notes are amazing.

Along with the last suggestion, the idea of having a post it note above your desk or on your computer screen that says: THEME and then what the theme of your work is, is apparently very very helpful. Again M (can you tell we drink a lot of wine and discuss writing a lot?) says that some famous author, whose name escapes me just now, does just that, so that when he is writing he is constantly reminded of the purpose of what he is writing. He won’t get distracted by a great line that doesn’t serve his larger purpose. He probably writes it down and tucks it away for something else, but he won’t put it in any piece that it doesn’t fit with the theme.

14. Collect pictures.

Pictures you took, your friends took, pictures from magazines and books. Post them around. Take them down. Color on them. Write on them. Write stories about them. Use them as a visual reminder of the settings of places in your writing or the characters themselves.

15. Write love poems to food.

Why not? If someone makes a particularly fine lemon Bundt cake and it makes you cry from how lovely it is, write it a poem. It’s the perfect thing really: you have a specific topic and central theme and character, it’s silly, it sharpens your wit, and anyone would be overjoyed to read an ode to their culinary skills. Also, it helps you appreciate the small things in life and duh, the only difference between the tired plot in your novel and the plot of every single other book is the details. Learn to focus on the details.

16. Set a deadline and then procrastinate until the last minute.

Seriously. Be just like my friend Deborah. I previously wrote a post about my playwright friend Deb and how to be more Deb-like. But I’ve also noticed, recently, that she has another interesting trait that I think could work quite well for other writers: meaningful procrastination. This is to say, she is most productive when she knows something needs to be done very very very soon. So, she spends most of her time happily working at things, but gracefully enjoying herself as well, not killing herself over stress at all. And then, a week or so before something absolutely positively must be finished, she buckles right down and let’s the pressure spur her creativity. Everyone around her knows how important it is for her to get the task at hand done, so they give her space and don’t pressure her into doing social things. People respect deadlines. And all the time up to the point where she has to sit in her room for five days straight, she’s experiencing all sorts of amazing things. Which goes along with tip number 7. An also with this fantastic Calvin and Hobbes comic…



17. Collaborate.

M has been taking a screenwriting class and it has been giving him great ideas for his own work, but it has also made him very good at editing and offering people useful advice on their work. So, now M is working with me an pretty much all of our friends on different projects and he says it’s making him feel more creative. Again, anytime you get to bounce ideas off of other people, something amazing should stick to you. And also, if you are in any way stuck in your own work you really should be doing anything you can do to not be staring at the wall, bashing your head against the desk in frustration at your dearth of creativity. Hanging out with other people makes it socially awkward to self harm, so you’ll have to focus on something else, like gathering up ideas for your writing.

18. Take a Bath.

This is something I like to do on a daily basis, mainly just because I like bubbles and swimming and a bath combines these two very amazing things. But I suggest it, not to relax you, but because I never have more ideas than when I can’t write. Like when you are at a very boring meeting at your office and all sorts of ideas come flooding into your head, when your hands are soapy and you can’t be anywhere near a laptop and even paper is awkward, that’s when you your brain goes mad with ideas. So take a bath and close your eyes and play some relaxing music and I promise you, even if nothing else worked, this will. Plus, after a long day of doing all the above tips, you are really going to need to clean up before bed.

Okay, I am spent. So all you get are 18 tips. But when I say “all” I actually think 18 is quite a few because I checked pretty extensively what else was out there on the internet and I think I managed to give you 18 tips that haven’t been hashed and rehashed ad nauseam. Plus, you got some Calvin and Hobbes comic strips to amuse yourself with. My generosity astounds me…

The Art of the Self Edit

12 Apr

M says that each time you retell a story, you refine it, you learn what works and doesn’t, it all becomes more dynamic. That’s what it means to edit as a writer; it’s the same as anyone does, everyday, with a juicy bit of office gossip. You start off with a long drawn out story, heavy with details you think cannot be left out of the telling, but by the 16th time you’ve told it, your words are sharper, the details cut down to the bare minimum, and your language emphasizing just the most important bits with ease. Your story takes half the time to tell and you’ve memorized your lines and your inflections like a Shakespearian trained actor. Now it’s not so much an amusing antecedent as it is a polished monologue, ready to be whipped out at a moments notice at parties or with a conspiratorial whisper by the water cooler.

Bad writers, like bad gossips, never learn the art of the self edit. They drag you along through superfluous words and run on sentences and punchlines in the wrong spot and they end up with a convoluted plot that no one seems much interested in paying attention to. Their tone is wrong, their voices trail off at the wrong bits, and at the end you are dissatisfied with the way it all went and feel a bit like you wasted quite a large chunk of your time.

I’ve got the best story to tell just now, but it hasn’t been lived-in enough to get the re-telling just right. All the facts and quirky details seem dead important, but it’s still taking too long  to tell the story. It’s still winding around the point, it’s still meandering for too long, and even I am wondering how it’s going to end. Because I’ve got the beginning (girl moves to a house of strangers in a foreign land) and a middle (girl begins to suspect said strangers of doing terrible, weird, and perverted things), and a climax (strangers are weird and perverted in ways she could never have fathomed– a Hitchcockian twist, not a David Lynch surprise), but how is it all going to be resolved?

As M says, my last few weeks, culminating yesterday with a home movie that would make David Lynch shiver with cinematic appreciation, would make the most awesome horror story. I wonder: if we write the script, could we get Roman Polanksi to direct it?

But what should I edit out? If I work on the story, on  myself, long enough, can I edit out the anger? Can I edit out the sick feeling in my stomach or the pain in my neck and back from not sleeping well? Can I edit out the shock that ran through my body as I looked at pictures of my room, my private space being violated by half-dressed middle-aged people? Can I edit out my distrust? Can I be impartial to my own pain and fear and create something universal that other people will want to hear? Because to write well, you have to write without cruelty in your own heart, you have to try to be as clinical as possible and just let the “facts” of the characters dig their own grave. So very Chaucer of me! ha. This mess is already a story that seems to fascinate my friends, but they know all the gory details. They have witnessed this drama unfold for months, like an excruciatingly slow British mini-series. Every new incident is gobbled up and dissected, and yes, dramatized. Swear words are added in, pauses for dramatic effect where there were none fit into spaces, and hysterical laughter at the ridiculousness of each new action helps lighten the dark drama with a much-needed comedic break, transforming the frightening reality into a delightful black comedy. I guess I’d rather my life be Shallow Grave than Saw because at least then I’d be better written, and with Ewan McGregor as my leading man.

Currently, my life, as literature, reminds me a lot more of Down and Out in Paris and London, but I do think that someday, when I finally am able to write this bit of my life out, objectively, as thinly veiled fiction and not as a blog entry, the disgusting and truly ridiculous bits of the last week will be edited down to a few mere paragraphs and the rest of the piece will focus on all the beauty that swelled up and surrounded me during and after. While I should be sitting in a dark room, crying and eating fried food, I am instead sitting at a desk in a sunny room, writing away, while I can hear D and M laughing and chatting happily in one room over. The scent of Earl Grey tea is rising up from a teacup covered in hand painted bunnies and pink flowers and the quilt my mother made me is wrapped around my lap and I am eagerly anticipating the delicious coconut-vegan soup M is going to make for tea and the big screen screening of Psycho with all of my friends.

Sometimes people will try and edit you down, make your life fit into their own stories. Create a character of who they think you should be in order to bounce off the ideas of what they expect their lives to be like. Disappointment in themselves and a failure to achieve their goals makes them want to address your goals and your life. It happens more than sometimes, let’s admit that. But I do firmly believe we are all storytellers, so I’m not going to let anyone write out my dramatic monologues or pick out my dramatic conclusion. I am absolutely, positively the main character in my own little world and I am writing out anyone who is not adding something beautiful to my story. I don’t mind that for the moment I am George Orwell, because in a few more chapters I plan on being Stella Gibbons– I just have to write my way there.

Bitchin Camaro

6 Apr

Apparently, I am very punk rock. At dinner last night, Al and Morgan informed me that during a strange car trip the previous night, they had been discussing favorite songs. And Morgan mentioned that he and I had only just had the same conversation days earlier. And apparently I had said, “Favorite song? Or favorite punk song?”

And Al says to me: “That’s just it, isn’t it? About you? There’s punk rock and then there’s everything else. All the trivial crap. There’s Britney Spears and then there’s drinking in your hotel room until 4 am, breaking glasses in the sink, dancing until dawn, sleeping in your clothes, writing bits of your novel on newspapers on the train ride home at 6 am…there’s everything else and then there’s real punk rock, there’s you.”

I was pretty well flattered by this comment. Because I just don’t see myself as that at all. I see myself as very safe, very boring sort of person. But then I realized that maybe that is who I was when I was younger, but that’s not me anymore. But the expectations of people I used to know still linger in my head and tell me who I am. Which is silly.

My parents, my highschool friends, my neighbors growing up would tell you that I cannot read maps, that I get lost and frazzled very easily. They will say that I am easily overwhelmed and that I cannot carry my own luggage. That I over pack. Even Holdstock sincerely wonders if I would be able to survive living more than a 20 minute walk from Harvey Nichols.

But then these newer friends, these friends that have only seen me as the sort of girl that head rushed right into London, see me as independent and fiesty. And I like that image a lot better. I like being told that if our lives were a slasher flick, that I would survive. What a great image to have in my head: me hacking a serial killer down with a machete.

This week I have the house to myself and I have been writing and printing up a storm these last two days, feeling very vicious towards anything in my way of finishing up my project. I’ve been listening to the playlist Nils left on my grooveshark account, because new music is a beautiful thing to have around. And I like his mixes.  But I feel so torn about what I’m writing about because on one hand, the warm weather gives rise to all sorts of fantastic, resplendent imagery, but my gut instinct is still always to write out the pain and suffering. We’re getting too self-destructive around here, but at the same time, we do always have to tear shit down to the ground to get anything fresh coming up, don’t we?

A certain little birdie told me to check out the movie Last Summer yesterday and I did and I feel all sorts of fucked up about it now. That title has the link to the actual film, so you should give yourself and hour and half in the bath and watch it.

This song is one of the ones on the Nils playlist and I am listening to it on repeat while writing about murder. I don’t know how well they go together, but now you know how my mind works…

The Ethics of Truth

1 Apr

As a fiction writer, I am rarely concerned with the ethics of what I am writing. I worry about my characters, I worry about my plot, I worry about keeping people’s interest. I’m not telling a real person’s story and I don’t need to be delicate with the details. I can say whatever I want.

But blogging makes it a whole different can of worms. I’m writing about my own life, but I am involving all the people around me as well. So, I have to try and keep a lid on things, although I think my fiction speaks volumes about me and how I’m feeling at any given moment. But I try to keep my blog a bit less personal than a diary would be, partially because it’s boring to ramble on about deeply personal things that are not easily relatable to a wide audience, partially because I like to keep some privacy, and partially because I want to keep my job, whatever I am doing at the time.

But I am also being frustrated recently because I am not a very good fiction writer. I am not good at hiding my heart, I wear it right on my sleeve. And all I can write lately is full throttle, my life splashed across the page, like blood you just cannot wash away. And I know that for anyone who knows me, it’s never been more than thinly disguised, but I was at least able to pretend to myself a little bit. Especially when people guessed wrong. It’s sort of like that Carly Simon song: everyone thinks I’m writing about them. Like a horoscope, you can poke your nose into any line and find yourself if you look around hard enough.

What I have been trying to write for the last few months, holed up here in London, was absolute fiction. Light and happy, a novel that was silly and endearing and…can you understand why I have run out of steam? It’s actually finished, just unbelievably boring and not much of myself can be found anywhere in it. And I returned from a weekend away, just full of stories and energy and darkness, but I can’t quite bring myself to post any of that, because it is all so painfully true and at what point do writers need to start hiding the truth? Because at some point, everyone you know and love ends up on the pages and then you aren’t going to have any friends. Or worse yet, all the enemies you have accumulated over the years (and trust me, all interesting people have a huge stack of enemies and I like to think of myself as interesting— if only because so many interesting people have taken the time to make me the bane of their existence) start to know too much about you. Then again, maybe that is what being a writer really is: being brutal honest with everyone in the world, even yourself, and having to admit that this is the way things are. This is the way things have unfolded and we are all idiots to pretend it all any different.

So what are the ethics of truth? When is it okay to lie? When is it okay to smudge the edges of truth, so we don’t hurt each other? And when is it okay to be brutally honest and can we expect forgiveness for that? Or do we even want to be loved by people that have a preconceived notion about who we are and don’t let us tell the truth? Strangely, the people I lie to the most are the people who think I share too much; if only they really knew how much I already do to protect them, let them live with this image they have made of me. But then again, they never read anything I write.

Throw away all those extra words…

20 Mar

Since I have returned from NY, I have made a conscious effort to be more self involved. I am pretty sure that isn’t how most people go about enlightenment, but I did realize that I needed to spend more time and energy on myself, rather than on others. This meant that a few people received brisk text messages and emails from me (mostly they were hard to write, one gave me such a thrill that I did wonder what on earth I had been doing speaking to this person in the first place) and this is how I cleared my social calendar.

So today, for whatever reason, I woke up at 4 am. That is incredibly early. It’s so early that people in America were still awake and I managed to waste the first two hours of my being awake talking to people on MSN. That was silly, but good, because I was all interneted out by 6 am. And then I sat down at my desk and started to re-work my novel, which has been laying around, unhappily untouched for several months now. Which was extremely silly, because it is finished. By finished I mean, all of the chapters, plus a few more, that I had outlined originally have been written. There is a beginning, middle, and end. Plot, climax, dialogue. Oh, snap.

But all writers know: just getting that all done does not make a piece finished. It just means that you are now onto the next stage of writing, which is editing. This is maybe my least  favorite stage of writing. This is because it involves re-reading every single line you have written, out loud, maybe with a funny voice here and there, and being ruthless. But I discovered a very happy fact: Letting a manuscript age in a drawer, as somebody famous once said, I am sure, is the best way to get over my biggest writing block, which is my love of my own words.

All through college and university and even most of my writing jobs, I was writing on a really tight deadline. So, I would get an assignment and start my research, take my notes, sketch out my papers or stories. I was never the sort to put a paper off to the last minute, I was always a very meticulous student. But I wouldn’t leave myself much time to let a paper simmer– what student does? You have so many papers to write, even if you start each one the day you get it, you are still working on a tight schedule. So my editing of all my papers and stories took place very very soon after my writing them. And so, even when I knew I needed to cut a paper by 200 words (or worse still, 1,000!), all I could see was how achingly beautiful my sentences were. I have a lot of ego about the beauty of my prose. My main problem is that each of my sentences do tend to be very well crafted, but they don’t always flow into the next one very well or advance the story or point of the paper in any way. As Mr. Holdstock says: line by line, you create something lovely, but as a whole, the thing needs help. Ouch. But true. And so editing was always a bitch: how do I know what to cut? I love each sentence independently, so how can I possibly cut any of them, just to make ‘cohesion’, that foul little word used by editors.

But editing is like packing: easier to do if you let something sit in a drawer long enough. And by this I mean, when I move, and I move a lot, the first things to go into the trash are the things I haven’t looked at in months. I just started packing up my things the other day, in a fierce rage of having too many things and feeling weighted down, and it was incredibly easy to look at a lot of things and go: well, I haven’t used that in MONTHS. I don’t even remember why I bought it or why I thought it was important. I won’t pack that to take to Istanbul, so why do I own it now?  In the end, I have far fewer things in my room and I am very happy about all this.

In my novel? Well, I haven’t looked at it in ages. And I forgot why I told Holdstock and VanWinkle why I had to keep this chapter or why it was incredibly important that this scene appear in a certain spot. In the end, I am chopping and splicing my novel as though I were Dr. Frankenstein, just checking to see if it would actually be better to have an arm coming out of the forehead. I am even experimenting with cutting in pieces of my other, partially finished, novel. It’s like a crazy laboratory in here today and I am loving it.

So, my new literary advice: forget about what you are writing about. Leave it for a few months. Go and get an all-consuming hobby, like doing everything on the “101 Things to Do in London Before You Die” list.  Go on a mini break to your home town for a month. Be too social. Feel like everyone around you is doing so many more creative and wonderful things than you. Feel a bit overwhelmed. Have a sort of breakdown where you become a hermit that bakes cupcakes. Then tuck right back in. Well, at least do steps 1 and 8. Just try and enjoy yourself in between and don’t beat yourself up too much, because we can’t all be productively creative every day.


17 Mar

“The secret of life,” said sculptor Henry Moore to poet Donald Hall, “is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. & the most important thing is — it must be something you cannot possibly do.”

Even Dutch Pedophiles Are More Focused On Their Long-term Goals Than I Am

17 Mar

Oh, god, could it be true? Probably. I was, once again, reading other people’s blogs today, while I was half thinking about how I really needed to start focusing on what I am going to do after London and after I travel. I was focusing on this huge decision by reading about celebrity gossip, how to make a lemon meringue pie (Easter is coming up after all and my mother always makes one on Easter), and checking my email. To be fair to myself, I was a bit tired from going on a very long walk with Emily, all the way up to Hampstead Heath, around it, and back home again. She runs. I do not. You can imagine what I looked like. Ahem.  So anyway, there I was procrastinating, thinking about doing some writing, probably.

And then my phone rang. And then I got a text. And then another. And then I remembered that I am going to the opera tonight and so I had better pick out something to wear and wash my hair and put my contacts in and suddenly, I was overwhelmed. And pressed for time. And I knew that I wasn’t going to get any writing done today at all because my social life is eating my professional life. Which is very confusing to me, because when I lived in Edinburgh, I got a lot of writing done. I was always writing. I wrote in my bed, I wrote at the kitchen table, I wrote on the couch while the girls I looked after watched The Simpsons. I think this is because the truth about Edin-burgers is that they are innately lazy and enjoy a good self imposed exile and so my social life was never so all consuming. Despite Edinburgh taking no more than an hour to walk from end to end (I lived in Leith and worked in Murrayfield and it took me an hour to walk or 20 minutes on the bus, and those sections of town are pretty darn far removed) and yet, no one will travel farther than 20 minutes walking time to see someone. In the winter (8 months of the year), they won’t travel more than 5. So, this means that when I moved to Edinburgh and lived in Tollcross and a boy I was dating lived on Easter Road (20 minute bus ride) we were in what is considered to be a “long distance relationship”. It did not end well for us.

But in London, people generally allow that they are going to spend at least 40 minutes getting anywhere and so they don’t really mind meeting up any day of the week and no one really plans that far ahead, calling you up last minute to do things.  So all of a sudden, I have a lot less free time. Although, another issue is that surely, I would rather be out of the house right at 7pm so that I don’t get reeled into reading the kids a bedtime story. (For some reason, lately they have been trying to convince me that ‘Beano’ is a book. It is not. And I do not read stupid comics, and I most certainly do not read them aloud). So that means all the times that I used to spend curled up in my bed, writing away happily, is now spent in dark rainy streets, using up all the money on  my oyster card to get away from suburbia.

So anyway, during my time procrastinating, I read, who else, but Penelope Trunk. I often time think that while she’s sitting at her desk, pondering what sort of article she should write that day, that she thinks of me and creates something in that vein. Which is what she did yesterday: she wrote an article about how not having any long term goals makes it impossible to get any work done because you aren’t sure if any of the work you will be doing will be valid for anything and so you get stuck and you stop. And in my case, you socialize. Partially because I have been told over and over that knowing people and having contacts is a really wonderful way for you to advance your career, but mostly because it is so easy and so fun to just hang out. It’s so easy to leave the house and relax, and trust me: you don’t know job stress until you realize that for 6 hours of your day, you are listening to children scream at top volume. Or worse still, talking non-stop for an hour straight while you are walking slowly in the cold, your fingers going numb and your brain on fire…

Right. So as you can see, I clearly have had my mind eaten away by this job as of lately and it’s actually making it hard to focus on my long term goals. And apparently, while I am sitting here, flummoxed and confused, drinking gin and tonics in Sloane Square, Dutch pedophiles are plotting out how to legalize having sex with twelve-year-olds. That’s right, they formed a political group. And they are campaigning for office. And then deciding that campaigning is taking away from their LONG TERM GOAL of legalizing pedophilia, so they stopped running for office to focus on making the general public aware of and sympathetic to their plight.

I’m bemused. And devastated. I’m actually less organized than child molesters. Although, let’s face it, I should have known that all along. After all, child molesters are always really planning ahead and doing all sorts of crazy hard work to organize themselves, from building secret basement dungeons to buying up all the cotton candy in three counties so that they can lure the child beauty pageant winner that they have been stalking and photographing for the last two years into said basement dungeon. They really do plan ahead. I bet they even have to-do lists where they prioritize all the really important things in their lives. I also bet they are very capable of packing light on vacation because they have already narrowed down what is really important to them and never need excess baggage. Lucky bitches.

I, however, do not have such a straight forward long term goal. I do not know, deep down, that I want to do something so badly that I have organized my life, my political affiliations, or marital status to reflect this goal, nor would I stage a battle with the law to be able to do that thing. While I don’t think I want to ever see these crazy Dutch people succeed, I do admire their dogged single mindedness. I admire their ambition. I admire their organization. I wonder if they have a productivity blog?

Although, probably, if they had one, they would, like most people who have productivity blogs (and there are A LOT out there) they would tell me to pick a goal, focus on it, and cut out all the social crap. I mean, they would spend 1,000 words saying that and also add some things in about having notes on your wall urging you on to your goals and making charts with star stickers as well. But basically, they would say: stop being so damn social. So that is my new long term goal: to be less social.  I bet hermits get a shitload of work done.

A Bad Choice Can Be the Best Choice

13 Mar

There are a lot of bad choices to be made, every day. And I have to admit, I usually veer towards the worst choice available. I think that a lot of that comes from my main intention in life, which is to be happy in the moment. And people that are happy in the moment are grasshoppers, which as we can tell from that old fable, leaves you a tad cold and hungry in the winter. So, I don’t have a lot of foresight going on when I choose my actions. Luckily for me, there are a lot of ants in the world and so usually someone helps me figure out the bad things and I have started to have a very fatalistic view on life, one where I believe that loss and failure come along to clear a path for better things.

And according to my hero, Penelope Trunk, this may well be a key trait as to why people are successful, while others are not. She says:

Everyone, please shut up about your biggest failures. I hate when people write about their failures because they always write about how they pulled themselves up, or what they learned. And really, then, it’s not a failure, is it? It’s a learning opportunity, or a chance to shine. Failure is something you did not overcome. You did not learn from. And most people are too embarrassed to write about it. High achievers don’t have failures because they can learn from everything.

I think that’s pretty genius, especially since I rarely think that when I mess up that I’ve failed. I sort of think, Well, clearly that wasn’t the right thing to be doing. Let’s try it this way. Fatalism to me, is not sort of giving up and trudging along, but perpetually believing that the right thing for you is going to show up if you knock on enough doors. So I knock on every single door I come along. Which is probably why I have had a  million and a half jobs. I got my first job when I was 15, writing a newsletter for a monument company. ‘Monument company’ is a beautiful euphemism used in the death industry to say ‘we sell grave stones’. I interviewed cemetery owners and funeral home directors and researched pieces on how to properly clean granite and how to choose the right structure for your mausoleum. When I turned 17, I was still working at that office, but had a weekend job as well, working at a huge indoor amusement park, where I ran the bumper cars and hung out with my friends. I still, to this day, have no idea what idiot at corporate made the oldest manager at the place 21 and then proceeded to hire only high schoolers. We ran that place into the ground, eating free candy, watching movies during our shifts, and making out in laser tag. It closed shortly after I graduated, due to bankruptcy. Of course. At 18, my boss at the monument company sent me away for CAD training and when I returned, I worked for her full time, selling ‘monuments’ and using my artistic flair to design them on the computer. Pretty soon I was managing the second location. And then I was doing my under-grad degree and I worked in bookshops, at the dining hall of my university, as a waitress, as a barista, at the GAP, at GNC, as a camp counselor, as a cleaning lady, as a secretary, as a file clerk, as a girl who scans things at an insurance agency. As a graduate student, I worked in a clothing store, did an odd bit of editing, and worked as a ‘Bunny’ for my friend’s club night promotion. After that, more temp work, kitchen work, teaching, being a Writer-In-Residence, selling men’s shirts, and, of course, nannying.

And the main reason that I do all these things is because I want to be able to travel, drop everything quickly and run off for weekend adventures with friends, and have plenty of time to write. Or bake cupcakes. Because while I feel like all these jobs hae taught me a great many things, I think it’s what I spend my ‘free’ time doing that really defines me. I’ve worked with kids with dyslexia, I’ve baked bread and cakes for homeless shelters, and I write. My friend Al, really soon after meeting me, said he loved to write, but if no one paid him to do so, he would give it up without a second thought. He said that he felt that if no one read his writing, then what was the point? I remember sort of looking at him strangely. I know that a lot of writers I know do feel defined by whether or not they get published or noticed, but at the same time, most of them would be writers even if they were the only ones who ever saw what came out of their fingertips. While I feel an absolute glow when someone asks to put one of my pieces somewhere, because, duh, it would be crazy not to be happy when someone understands and likes what you were trying to say, I guess I come from more of an Emily Dickinson school of thought. Write it, love it, stick in a desk drawer.  The way I write is like how I get tattoos: secret, small, unseen by the average person.

And I think that’s good. Because, as Penelope goes on to say:

There is no finish line, there is no gold prize. There is only living with yourself, day after day. So each day needs to be a small triumph so you can pat yourself on the back before you go to sleep.

So,   I can sit down and write ten things that I loved about my week, that’s a triumph. And whenever I sit and spend an hour at my desk and I can enjoy re-reading what I’ve written: triumph! And when my cupcakes get gobbled up by homeless guys who feel really special that someone baked something specifically for them: triumph. When I manage to not get lost going someplace complicated to get to: uber triumph. And yes, of course, there are some days where just getting out of bed and not smothering people in their sleep is the biggest triumph of all.  I can’t say that getting a story published or landing a cool job is a triumph, because again, like Penelope says:

Our big moments — where we can change the world — come because so many other people have helped us, and luck has come to us. But our small moments, when no one is watching and no one cares and the only thing that makes us try again is an unreasonable belief that we can get what we want for ourselves — those are the triumphs that we do all by ourselves.

Gin and Commas

3 Mar

At times, drinking far too much can result in some very strange situations, and the best of these times are the ones where you end up having a discussion with high school seniors (or whatever they are called in England) that melds together pop music and grammar.

My birthday, while mostly a strange Jason Morton Experience (see below for a definition), had a few really amazing moments, one of which was just such a time, where I started speaking very randomly to two 18-year-old girls and the conversation progressed into a conversation about the band Vampire Weekend and the Oxford comma and how much we all love the comma. Yes, that is right, 18-year-old girls love the Oxford comma. So, now, all you boys out there that were wondering how to woo such a female, you have this powerful knowledge. Although, to be fair, I am pretty sure those girls were Latin and Russian majors, but still…

But back to the comma. I’m not drunk now, but certainly, I’d never be able to as elegantly explain why the comma is golden as this fellow, Gabe at Motivated Grammar, has done. I don’t know who he is or what he looks like, but I am fairly sure I love him. His post on the Oxford Comma makes me willing to rethink my stance on having babies, just because I at least know that they would be reared with an unfailing sense of duty to the Oxford Comma. And in a world such as ours, I couldn’t ask for more.

First, a bit of background. The Oxford comma is so-called because it is standard in the style guide for the Oxford University Press, and has been for over a hundred years. The Oxford comma is attested in the 1905 edition of the OUP Style Guide, and remains there to this day.  The comma also goes by a few other names. Those of a less Anglophilic bent can call it the Harvard comma — although as a loyal Princetonian I would never sully my reputation by doing so. Those who seek to remain neutral in such Anglo-American affairs can call it the serial comma. And those who don’t much care about minor punctuation issues refer to it as “that extra comma” or “that stupid extra comma”, depending on whether or not they use it.

But whatever you call the comma, is it right or wrong? There’re fair arguments on both sides.  One might be concerned about limiting ambiguity. Alas, including the Oxford comma can lead to ambiguity, but omitting it can lead to ambiguity as well.  Consider (3) and (4):

(3a) I own pictures of my friends, Hugh Grant, and Dolly Parton.
(3b) I own pictures of my friends, Hugh Grant and Dolly Parton.

(4a) I am writing to my Congresswoman, Alia Shawkat, and Michael Cera.
(4b) I am writing to my Congresswoman, Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera.

It is clear, thanks to the Oxford comma in (3a) that I am not friends with Hugh Grant or Dolly Parton. In (3b), though, they could potentially be my friends, listed as an appositive phrase, and the sentence is thus somewhat ambiguous. Deus ex Oxford comma! On the other hand, in (4a), if you don’t know who Alia Shawkat is, then you may reasonably conclude that the commas are intended to indicate an appositive and that Alia Shawkat is my Congresswoman. (4b) is clearer; since Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera can’t both be my Congresswoman, it’s clear that I was constructing a three-item list. Diabolus ex Oxford comma!  In the first case, the Oxford comma dispels ambiguity, but in the second it induces ambiguity.  So ambiguity doesn’t push us one way or the other.

He does end his post with some silly prattle about it being okay either way, but I don’t think (a.k.a want to believe) that is how he really feels.

I used to get terribly upset when I would see posters, especially for movies such as Me, You and Dupree (which is so upsetting to me that I cannot believe I just wrote it out there), because I like the nice, easy readability that the ‘extra’ comma adds. Grammar is, as my imaginary friend Gabe writes, made for helping stamp ambiguity out of language. It’s there so that knowledge and information is accessible to everyone. EVERYONE. Not just Oxford kids, not just people who speak a language as a native (trust me, it’s when you start having to read other languages that you start to really appreciate when someone writes in a straightforward manner),  and not just for writers either.  Did you catch me using my comma? Good.

So here is why I love the Oxford comma: It erases all ambiguity. I can focus less on the structure of the sentence and more easily get to the point. This means I can digest the information quickly, pocket it away in my brain, and move on to the next bit of information. It’s a wonderful thing when you want to read quickly, and I do. There are a lot of books out there in the world and I would like to get through quite a few more before I die.

Now, as Jason Morton (of the Jason Morton Experience) will tell you, journalists rarely use the Oxford comma. He works in magazines and newspapers, so I let it slide for him. I’m not sure why they like to skip it, as the point of a news article is to be easily digestible by the masses, but I’ll try to fake an understanding, just for him.

I would like to say, however, that my love of the Oxford comma has nothing to do with any sort of Anglophilia that was mentioned as a possible source of affection by Gabe. In fact, my first visit to Oxford made me feel a bit upset (really, no, I do not give a flying fuck about the damn Tolkien bust! What do you mean you don’t know who John Donne is?) and my second was mainly a loved up wander through some gardens and a great deal of wine drinking in an old man pub.  I could call it the Harvard comma, it would make me feel okay to do that, except then when I argue how great it is with English people, they simply say it is a stupid American creation and the Scots will argue that it is a stupid English creation. They love to argue that, since Edinburgh is the first university to properly teach English. Although mainly they just like to argue. (I just thank god everyday that it is not called the Essex comma or I would want to eradicate it as well…but that’s just the ol’ SNP in me that a certain Mackenzie put in me that I cannot seem to get out of my system, no matter how London tries to squish it out).

Anyway, the rest of the evening was not nearly as much fun as that one moment and I have to say, I do feel terribly happy that I was able to converse with some lovely people (although other than my new friend Niall, I seem to only remember the name Josh, possibly because I have a picture on my phone of us….). Now, where did I put that comma?

*Jason Morton Experience: a situation where a person loses all track of time and logic, due to unsavory dealings, and ends up with a non-linear memory of a night, or day.


Actual Writing Tips

2 Mar

I’ve spent the last month at my parent’s house in NY, due to some family things that are not exciting. I sort of thought to myself, this will be a perfect opportunity to get a lot of work done. After all, I can wake up when I want with no work to get up for and I can lock myself away and write and write and write without any sort of distraction of fun things to do. London is always such a distraction, the city itself seems set up to make me want to roam the streets with my mouth agape in awe. But the town I grew up in is not quite London and an awful lot of my friends have moved away or are busy with their jobs, so I figured I had huge stretches of time to do nothing. I convinced myself that it was going to be like a writer’s retreat and was even a bit excited about it.

In “No Plot, No Problem” Chris Baty talks about how having all the time in the world to write is counter-productive. He is very much not wrong. Of course, I think he also failed to add that if your parents are retired and around you 24 hours a day that there is not a single chance that you will ever ever ever be able to get into the writing zone, regardless of anything else. To be fair, I think this is true for anyone who has someone else they are close to living with them. I have a friend, who shall remain nameless, that used to yell at his girlfriend when she was home when he was writing. He used to make her leave the house. And I never understood because I thought, can’t she just go in the other room and leave you alone? Isn’t that enough? After all, I’ve only lived with random flatmates or boyfriends who also wrote, and trust me, privacy was never an issue. So I had no reference point.

But within MINUTES of my first day of trying to write at my parents’ house, I knew why my friend spent a lot of time screaming and trying to clear the house.

Other people are annoying.

You see, when I write in London, I am always alone. I work as a nanny and the kids are in school all day. I can lock myself in my room with a pot of tea and a bowl of fruit, put a song or an album on repeat, light my happy Penhaligon’s candle, and zone out at my desk. My lovely desk that overlooks the neighborhood, high above the street, so all I can see are calming rooftops and trees and the skyline. And I literally do just zone out. I often times have to set an alarm on my phone to remind me that it is time to pick up the kids from school. I am usually still in a daze as I shuffle to the school grounds and it’s only the chatter of the boys that perks me back to the real world. It’s fabulous.

Meanwhile, at my parent’s, they are shuffling around. And the floor outside the computer room squeaks when you walk across. And then they just shuffle into the room and start playing around with the rest of the office stuff and then shuffle out. They do this a lot.

So then I started locking the door. Which sort of helps. But it actually just means that they knock a lot on the door. They are always wondering if I am hungry. Also, other family members always want to know if I want to spend time with them and listen to stories about buttons. Well, not really; they never actually ask if I want to hear that story, they just tell it.

So then I tried to get up really early and go on the treadmill to start my day off with a lot of exercise so I would have lots of energy and maybe be in a ‘zone’. I find  that walking at a medium pace makes my brain go a bit numb and I just start to think and let my mind flow. In London, I do this outside, at Highgate Woods. At my parents’ house I do this in the basement. Not the same. Possibly because my parents have a TV and a computer down there and so my family spends a great deal of time down there. And, just so you know, if you aren’t at the gym, it’s weird to have other people in the room with you when you exercise. It’s especially un-nerving if they are watching you run while they watch TV next to you. It is actually just angering when they start to talk to you and get annoyed when you are too out of breath to hold a conversation with them or even care about what they are saying.

I understand my friend now: you can love someone very much and still want to scream at them until they go away. It’s not personal. It’s just I need to focus on a reality that is in my head so I can write it down. It’s because I like to write fiction, not blog posts like this where I attempt to make funny commentary about how my mother loves to flip between the Olympics and HGTV at a crazy rate so that I actually feel nauseous, but I can’t leave because then I feel like I am not spending enough quality time with her.

But I want to make this post an upper, so here are my writing tips for people who are stuck in the less than ideal situation of having to share your space with other people. Which, as I understand it, is most of you. (My friend: take note).

Lock the door. Seriously, lock the door. And put a towel in the crack. And leave a note on the front telling people not to knock unless the house is on fire. Or they are on fire and have already tried to put it out themselves. Then get some headphones, big earmuff looking ones and move on to the next step.

Pick a song and stick with it. I always pick music to write to that I feel like inspires me for that particular story I am trying to tell. And it may sound super repetitive, but I will listen to a single song or an album non-stop for hours, days even, while I am writing. And as soon as I need to get into the mood to write, to work on a particular story, I will just put that song/album on, and listen. It’s like a meditation and I instantly zone into where I need to be. So, if you are having trouble concentrating, pick your song, play it loud, play it often, and zone out of everything that is not the song. You may think listening to other people’s words would be distracting, but honestly, after you listen to a song 500 times, it’s just white noise, crushing everything else that seeks to distract you in its wake.

Put everything you could possibly need in front of you and then don’t move. Well, you can move. But don’t you dare try and use that procrastination technique of saying to yourself, “I am hungry. I should just nip out to the kitchen.” Those other people will talk to  you. You will lose your concentration. You will get distracted. So you get your snacks and your water and your tea and maybe even a kettle right there, next to your desk. Now don’t get up.

I used to be an RA for a summer art camp. We had one student who would stay up all night in his room and paint and paint and paint. He decided that to get up and go to the bathroom would be a hideous waste of his time. So he would use empty soda bottles. Okay, it was weird to open his closet and find urine stacked in bottles because he also decided that it was a waste of time to throw them out. But then again, he was 13. I don’t recommend this as a technique, but still, I think it shows an excellent example of dedication to not getting distracted.

Make it really really really hard to procrastinate. I have another amazing friend, we will call her fantastic Miss Deborah, and she voluntarily chose to not use the internet for a month once and she reported that she was so unbelievably productive that if she had kept it up she could have ruled the world. Well, I might have implied that, but that is not the point. The point is: the internet is a time suck. I am sucking up your time right now. I am sorry.

I am a bad bad person and I cannot give up the internet for a month. I am absolutely addicted. (Hence why I have a blog with frequent posts). But what I can do is turn the wi fi button off of my computer, select to NOT automatically connect, and unplug the router from the wall. That way, if, when I am writing, I want to check the internet, I have to mindfully get up from my chair (which the last tip told me not to do) and plug things in and re-connect. It takes up a lot of time and 99.9% of the time, I won’t be bothered. Take that addiction!

Also, lock your phone out of the room you are in. Sometimes my boss calls when I don’t have the phone in my room. It happens. If my phone and then the house phone rings, I know it is an emergency and I check my messages. Otherwise, it’s probably just a friend texting me to say “heeeeeey.”

Use the internet like a warrior, not like a self-harmer. If you do need to use the internet, and of course you do, try and use it in such a way that it helps you be more productive. To be honest, just having this blog, even if no one was reading it but me, it makes me know that I have to get content out on a regular basis. I set the schedule myself, but that doesn’t mean that I am not committed to it. The easiest way to keep a promise is to make it a public one (I think that’s the real concept behind marriage: you make your vows in front of other people and now you are publicly responsible for your actions). So make a commitment to your writing and yourself and make a blog or join a writer’s group with people you trust to read your work and email, email, email.

You can even use the internet to cut down on TV time…

Choose to watch all of your TV on your computer. Seriously. I like TV. I’m not highbrow or pretentious. I like to watch Cougar Town. Sorry everyone, I do. So here’s the thing, if I had to catch all the shows I love on the actual television, I would always be on the couch in the evenings, jostling for space with my work-family. But I could be writing then. (Honestly, my work-family must love me: I show up to lovingly take care of their kids and then skeedaddle and quietly hang out in my room, writing, until I go to bed at a very decent hour. It’s like I don’t even live there…). So the only time I really watch TV is when I am too tired to sit up any longer and I put my pjs on and crawl into bed. Then, if I need to catch up on any shows, my laptop shows them to me.

This is what I have for now, because I am now back at work and I have to go colour and make tea and listen to stories about dinosaurs…


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