Archive for August, 2009

I’ve never spent the very end of August in Oxford.  I’ve been either in Boston or Paris, which makes my life sound more glamorous than it probably ever will be.  Last year, on a budget and a bad ankle (his, not mine–an untimely football injury), we spent an impoverished weekend in the Latin Quarter counting centimes and drinking bottles of table wine whilst supine in grassy patches.  The year before that I spent a tearful hour at Heathrow before parting from a new love, and when I arrived at Logan International my bags were duly unpacked by a brassy lady who opened my Moleskine and wanted to know what all the writing was about, and then she repacked them in a halfhearted manner, and then I spent the night in an empty apartment, and every day after the city got colder and colder.

But today I wake to find that the sun is shining and though it’s still, according to the calendar, summertime, it smells like Autumn outside.  I wear a leather jacket and a jumper and for the first time in months the wind as I cycle cuts through the denim of my trousers and I find myself hoping that at the end of my commute will be central heating and a hot cup of coffee.  But there is neither, of course, because it is summer, and because I am late and therefore not able to offer myself the luxury of hot fresh coffee.  Still, when I cross the road for lunch in the afternoon I find it still smells of Autumn.  I want cashmere, and cocoa.  When I get home in the evening to find the Man trimming the trees out front, I say hello but what I really want most of all is to crawl under the duvet and not leave for hours.  Which is how he finds me when he comes back inside: a lump underneath a dirty suede blanket.  He sits beside me and asks me to the pub.  But it takes effort, and argument, before I can be persuaded to leave that place.  Half of me is in love with the autumnal smell, the smell of decay and wood fires; the other half can’t help but think that there weren’t enough days in Summer and now I’ll have to wait another year to wear my dresses without tights.

Still, I’m on the edge of something.  I’m more than three-quarters into a book which is both miraculous and inevitable.  Only a few months ago I spoke of September as my unwritten deadline; the time at which all the pieces of my life would fall into place as if by magic.  And in a way they have, though nothing really has changed, or happened, since then.  If I don’t think too specifically about anything, it all makes sense.  And I think I’ll leave it like that–like the in-between season we’re in–for now.



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The Creative Balance

Oh how I used to despise the precious writer.  You know the one I mean: the one who never speaks of her projects for fear of upsetting her own fragile self, the one who sighs with such depth, when asked who she is or what she does, that any further conversation is rendered impossible.  You wouldn’t dare advise her on her craft; and she wouldn’t dare take your advice even should you be audacious enough to offer it.
I used to think that writing was more like running a campaign.  You don’t keep your project secret; you keep it the opposite of secret.  You talk about it until your throat goes dry; you solicit input and approach every interaction with an admirable but alarming earnestness.
I used to think that.  Until recently.  Until I slid, somehow, from the realm of the hobbyist writer into that of the professional writer, and started to work on something serious and long.  Something that had been growing and changing for two years.  So thrilled was I by its daily progress—much like a mother infatuated by her baby’s tiniest developments—that I felt compelled to report every thought I had on it to everybody I knew who would listen.
And then I found out something else: that everybody I knew who would listen, would also respond with opinions, and advice.  Was it their own desire to be part of the creative process, to impact the project in some way?  Were they trying to prevent me from straying into disastrous zones?  Were they completely and utterly full of shit? I didn’t know; but I knew one thing: I was overwhelmed, and my energy was fading fast.
But surely it’s great to receive free advice?

You would think, wouldn’t you.  You would even, if you were being charitable to the human race, hope.  You would hope that the creative process be a collaborative, not a secretive, one.  You would hope that every insight might bring us closer to a finished and powerful product.
It’s logical, that train of thought.  It’s how politics works: candidates (the smart ones, anyway) hire pollsters to gather information, which is then, by the magic of analysis and luck, turned into advice, and used by spin doctors to shape and reshape the candidate’s image until he appeals to the greatest number of people possible.  And when he’s managed to appeal to a majority, he wins the race.
The creative process is not, of course, about winning or losing, not in the same way that a political campaign is.  There’s a very straightforward rule for running a political campaign, and if you’re only concerned with success (as opposed to ethics, or advancing a cause, or revising the sick system of electoral politics), it’s your mantra : win 51% of the votes.  Simple.
It gets more complicated when it comes to composing a piece of music, or writing a book, or painting a picture.  Nobody wins and nobody loses, even when the final product has been released to the world.  Not as such.  Still, the creative “wins” when his work is accepted in its field; he wins even bigger when that same work turns out to be a success.  It isn’t a neat win, but in so far as it allows him to continue doing what he both enjoys and is good at, it’s a personal win.  It’s what we all strive for.
So, if that’s true, why on earth shouldn’t I—why can’t I—, as a writer, do exactly what the pollsters and politicians do?  Why can’t I aggregate all the responses to my work and use what my constituents (or my readers) say to craft the thing they are most likely to a) read and b) enjoy?  After all, if I’m honest, as a writer, that’s what I want most in the world.  I want people to read what I write and find that it impacts or affects them.  That, if we’re using political terms, is my 51% of the vote.

Well, here’s why.  Because my readers are not constituents.  And if I treat them as such, I immediately lose that rare and balanced relationship between a creative and his consumers.  My readers are human beings, each one completely independent from me.  They do not need me, thankfully, to fix their broken healthcare system, or invade another country for them, or soothe their financial burns.  They do not rely on me for anything which is fundamentally crucial; I’m not the protector of their liberty or the harbinger of their glory.  I’m the person who entertains them, and, if I’m lucky, makes them think.DSC02734

Therefore, it would be doing them a disservice to pander completely to their whims.  If I write a book which is somehow, miraculously, exactly what each potential reader of mine wants to read, I fail.  I lose.  Because who does that challenge?  Who does that entertain, who does that provoke?  Nobody.  The book which pleases everybody becomes stale upon conception; it’s a sterile, empty thing.  It’s both worthless and ultimately harmful.

Just like the politician who pleases everybody.  A true leader is not afraid to piss a few people off (see the current healthcare debate in the USA), because he knows that it is impossible to make every single one of his constituents happy without becoming something false.  Surely it’s more important to advance a cause, or put forth an interesting idea, than to earn the approval of the entire room.  This is not a campaign for prom queen, it is real life.

So there I was.  Writing a book and feeling so insecure about the whole process that I not only craved but sought out every glimmer of advice-like stuff from everybody I’d ever known (or not known).  And receiving more input than I knew what to do with.  And tearing my hair out because I simply didn’t know how I could make the book fit both his idea of it and hers; how it could be two opposite things simultaneously whilst still maintaining its essence.

When I realized: I don’t have to listen to everybody.  I don’t have to listen to anybody, if I don’t want to, but I think it would be stupid, shortsighted, and selfish to ignore the world around me.  But mostly, I don’t have to listen to everything that everybody says.  If Person A gives me one piece of good advice and one piece of bad advice, I don’t have to take both pieces, but neither do I have to ignore both pieces.

Oh.  That’s your epiphany?

Yes.  My epiphany is that I am my own politician, my own pollster, my own spin doctor, and my own constituency.  And so are you, and so is she.  The creative process seems easier than the political one, because it’s less definitive; actually, that lack of definition makes it vastly more complicated, and vastly more rewarding.  What I’m saying to you in essence is this: creativity is not, nor should it ever be, secret or steadfast; but neither should it ever become so democratic that it loses all structure.
I can’t claim that I’ll get the balance right, on this or any other book, but I can claim that I’ll do my best, from here on out, to think of my project as something that has enough integrity of its own not to be moulded by the slightest wisp of advice, but enough malleability that it can be shifted, when needs be, without too much effort or emotional exhaustion.

And at the end?  I can’t say with any certainty; but what I hope is that we’ll have something which pleases some, displeases others, but at least unites them all when they say that it is fully formed, it is well-thought out, it is, whether we like it or not, good at being what it is.

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The Places We Work

A few weeks ago we spent a weekend in the country, and I had a particularly productive Sunday morning.  Sitting there, in someone else’s house, with a view of the Oxfordshire countryside on a hazy August day (all golden wheat, green trees, almost-blue sky), I remembered that other books had been written at that desk, before that view (this is not speculation, I happen to know it to be fact).  Then I remembered that the downstairs study in our house, the one I so recently vacated, the one in which I typed out thousands of my own words–at least one other book was written there, too (again, it’s fact, not speculation).

It isn’t a thought that lends itself to much else, but it’s still interesting–and weirdly heartening–to note that other authors have come literally before me.

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This week’s challenge (see here if you have no idea what I’m on about) is all about fashion, Sydney style.  Which makes me more than a little excited.  Because, while I’m mostly all introverted-intellectual-morally superior-writerly, I’m also, when it comes down to it, a girl.  And a confirmed eBay junkie.  And a closet Vogue reader.  And a devotee of The Sartorialist.  And I really, really, really want to be sent to Sydney.  Especially after spending a few hours reading about the markets.    So visit www.sendmetosydney.com, have a look, and leave a comment or two, particularly if you have any thoughts on Sydney style…

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So there I was sitting in my local pub wondering if I was, indeed, going to cry just because I’d come here specifically to write a big chunk of the book only to realize that all I’m capable of tonight is a few hundred pathetic and badly-placed words, when I decided to check my newsfeeds, and boy am I glad I did, because I saw this (it’s all funny, but I’m really referring to the last entry), and it a) made me laugh out loud, by myself, in a crowded pub (yes, I’m that girl, the one you saw in the Rusty Bicycle looking a bit like a bipolar monkey) and then, b) smile and feel better about myself.  Because I may not have finished the book tonight, or made any significant contribution to it at all, but at least I still have my job(s), and enough of a sense of schadenfreude to keep me going until the day I can proudly say not “I was fired because of facebook!” but, “I quit my job because I’ve got a book deal.”

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Morning Monks

My morning commute down the Iffley Road seems to coincide with the morning migration of two monks, in full brown robes and leather sandals.  I see them almost every day, and invariably they are carrying matching red nylon rucksacks.  The juxtaposition never fails to delight me.  It’s like the sort of thing that Pico Iyer describes in The Lady and the Monk: an incongruity, an overlap of times and cultures.  No doubt they also have iPods tucked into their pockets and are chatting about grocery shopping, or Big Brother, or traffic; no doubt their lives are as mundane as mine or yours, but minus the rucksacks, they may as well be strolling through the Middle Ages.

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Send Me To Sydney!

I’ve got a new blog going, with a very specific purpose.  Please click here, and check regularly for updates.  I’ll do some cross-posting, but everything Sydney-related will be up on the Send Me To Sydney blog.

Sydney?  What?  Huh?  I know, it came as a surprise to me, too.  A few weeks ago I got an email out of the blue, asking if I wanted to be part of a competition that could end with me winning two sets of tickets to Australia.  Oddly enough, I did want to be part of such a competition–offer me free travel and I drool like a hungry dog.  So now here I am, setting up a new blog, making up hamster-and-cricket-related pub games, and waiting to see what happens next.

If I win, I’ll use the trip as a reason to write not just for myself but for a community of people who are interested in Sydney, interested in my work, or just interested in the world.  So if you read this blog (or even if you don’t), please check out the new site.  Your feedback, comments, and ideas will be invaluable.  The competition is about creativity, but it’s sponsored in part by the chaps at 1000heads, and I it’s fair to say it’s also about making connections with people–something that blogging, above any other form of writing, is made for.


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