Amazon’s amazin’ – so sue me

There are a lot of people out there getting their knickers in a twist about Amazon. They’re doing terrible things to the publishing industry, apparently. They’re single-handedly sounding the death knell for sweet little independent bookstores everywhere. And they kick puppies.

I like sweet little independent bookstores as much as the next person, I do. (And I really like puppies.) The thing is, the Amazon-haters are just so demanding. They want me to pay more for my books – and to do it with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. They want me to spend my precious hours of free time getting on the train to my nearest non-chain bookstore, failing to find what I want on its shelves, ordering it, and then heading back out in a week’s time to pick up my purchase.  They want me to sacrifice the joy of finishing a really good book by an author I’ve never read before and immediately finding another one by the same writer, downloading it onto my Kindle, and getting stuck in.

In other words, they want me to act in a way that’s contrary to my own interests.

They say it’s the right thing to do.  They claim it’s worthy. They almost go so far as to suggest that we

An Amazon-hater at rest.

An Amazon-hater at rest.

owe it to the owners of those sweet little independent bookstores. That to expect anything so uncouth as a profit motive to enter their cultured heads is somehow unreasonable! Apparently, I should pay for these corduroy-wearing luvvies to stay locked up in their ivory towers, secure in the knowledge that I’ll keep shelling out more than the minimum of my hard-earned because doing anything else marks me out as an unconscionable Philistine!

Call me a hardened capitalist if you like, but I resent the suggestion that buying books on Amazon is one step away from clubbing baby seals.

And in any case, all this stuff about boycotting it misses the point. There’s no need to don hair shirts to save our independent bookstores: they simply need to focus on the things they can provide that Amazon never could.

Amazon can’t give me a happy hour or two wandering around a store that’s filled with temptations, unearthing a title I would never have realised I wanted until it called to me from the shelf and quickened my heartbeat (the last one was the “The Hallucination of Words”). It can’t compete with the simple pleasure of admiring your new purchases with the rich aroma of coffee in your nostrils and a mouthful of homemade carrot cake. It can’t get people together over a glass of wine to listen to an author or a poet read their work. It can’t do any of those things, any more than independents can offer hundreds of classic works of literature for precisely no money at all.

Amazon makes it easy for people to buy books. It encourages people to read, and to read more. And if if its success means that other retailers have to adapt to survive, that they have to work harder to offer something that people continue to be prepared to pay for – well, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

The hotshot, the hero and the loathly lady – creativity and archetypes

Tuesday evening took me to the environs of Liverpool Street for another treat from the London Writers’ Café – a workshop on characterisation run by Rowan Coleman, author of no less than twenty-three books under three pen names.  When someone has been published that many times with still not a grey hair to be seen, you know she’s worth listening to.

The workshop was great, the Q&A even better.  Having spent the previous hour and a half poring over exercises to get under the skin of the characters in our various works in progress, an annoying little doubt was niggling away at me: was it really possible to invent an entirely new set of characters for any new project? Or if, as it’s often said, a writer’s characters are all really aspects of him- or herself, does the time come when we exhaust our cast lists and begin to reproduce essentially the same people?

What better person to ask than someone who’s half-way through their twenty-fourth book?

Rowan started by saying that she believed all her characters were unique. Perhaps, she suggested, I should buy all twenty-three of her books and let her know whether I agreed? (That’s a challenge I may yet take up – although if anyone reading this has got there ahead of me, please let me know what you think.) But, she mused, perhaps there is a signature that an author leaves on her characters, something that you might discern if you read all her works back to back. Rowan, it turns out, is a fellow fan of Stephen King, and having done just that with a sizable chunk of his output she thought that was the case.

But what then is that signature? Is it simply that a strangely high proportion of The Master’s protagonists are white men of a certain age with more than a passing interest in creative writing? Or is it something deeper – something about their way of speaking and interacting with others? About their way of looking at the world? And do we, as readers, connect with those characters because, no matter how different we may be on the surface, there’s something there that we recognise in ourselves?

Jung hypothesised that there were twelve primary archetypes, including the hero, the innocent and the jester (Bridget Jones’s Diary, anyone?). But a bit more online digging reveals that’s a long way from the end of the archetype listing: the intriguingly named www.howtofascinate.com tells me that there are, in fact, 49 personality archetypes – which, with the help of their “senior strategists” can be analysed to determine someone’s “Personality Brand”.  I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated…

Then there are the archetypes-within-archetypes: eight hero archetypes apparently (http://www.likesbooks.com/eight.html), and sixteen master villains (http://www.tamicowden.com/archetypes.htm) – well, the villains would have to go one better.

The loathly lady - she was furious when she found the artist hadn't painted her best side.

The loathly lady was furious when she found the artist hadn’t painted her best side.

And that’s before you get to Wikipedia, which lists over 130 stock characters. These include the fabulously alliterative (“loathly lady – a woman who appears to be hideous, often cursed”), the satisfyingly rhyming (“hotshot – also known as ‘badass'”) and the weirdly specific (“Herr Pastor – an authoritarian pastor in an ethnic German congregation”).

What conclusion to draw from this little lot? I’m not sure I know, but I’ve decided on one thing: if, as writers, our characters really are aspects of ourselves, I can’t wait to unleash my inner Herr Pastor.

They call me Buttercup…

Well, not me, but the rather beautiful 1975 VW Camper in which the Husband and I spent a happy, rain-sodden weekend two weeks ago.

The story begins last Christmas in the living room of the parents-in-law.  Picture the scene: mother-in-law is very excited, father-in-law hardly less so.  Most of the presents have been unwrapped and we think we’re about to settle down with a glass of vino and the Doctor Who Christmas Special when they hand the Husband and me an envelope.  This, they tell us, is the last and most special of our gifts.  It is, in fact, “the perfect present”.

Now if this were a film, there’d be a close-up of their expectant faces as the Husband and I fumble with the corners of the envelope, laughing as shreds of paper fall to the carpet; a pause, then cut to our expressions of barely-disguised dismay as we reveal a voucher for a walking tour of the architectural delights of Milton Keynes, or tickets for a Justin Bieber concert, or a token for 30% off six sessions with a personal trainer (“SWEAT with Brett!”).

But no, this was no film – and this time it was a proper, kosher, honest to goodness, fab present: the envelope contained a voucher for a trip in a beautiful 1970s VW campervan called Doris.

“Er – Doris?” I hear observant readers ask, “I thought you said she was called Buttercup?” Well yes.  The thing about these masterpieces of funky gorgeousness, it turns out, is that they’re not that reliable – hardly surprising, I suppose, when you consider they’re regularly hitting the road around 40 years after they were built.  The day before our much-anticipated trip we had a call from Doris’s owner to tell us that she’d developed a fault and needed medical attention. Our date was off.

Happily, there was a standby waiting in the wings: step forward Buttercup.  She was beautiful, she was yellow, and she made us sing Gilbert and Sullivan. What more could anyone ask for?

According to the Husband, she was hard work to drive – and the pull-and-twist hand brake that you only had any chance of applying after you’d parked made for some interesting moments at uphill traffic lights – but hey, that wasn’t my problem. So what if Buttercup took a few attempts to splutter into life? So what if she swayed gently as yet another twenty tonne lorry rumbled past her? I’m sure the Husband secretly loved that three point turn in the one track country lane when I failed to spot the turning to the campsite until a moment too late. Whatever he said at the time.

As for me, I just sat in the passenger seat grinning like a loon and praying to see another camper so I could practise my newly-learned VW wave.

Magic.

On the campsite we were celebs, basking in the instant coolness Buttercup conferred.  Envious campers threw her sidelong glances as they walked past to fill up their water bottles just one more time. Others, bolder, sidled up to ask us how long we’d had her, or if they could take a look inside, or to share stories of their friends’ campervan-owning exploits. From the skin-headed woman in the tie-dyed harem pants, to the middle-aged couple in the sensible sandals, they all loved Buttercup.

I felt like I was on a date with super-model.  Oh yeah, baby – she’s with me.

Buttercup basking in the calm before the storm

Buttercup basking in the calm before the storm. See the toilet block? Exactly.

Of course, the weather was rubbish; properly rubbish, in the way that only a British coastal town in August can manage.  On our first afternoon, the sky that had been a flawless azure was smothered in a moment by a flock of clouds that blotted out the sun.  There was that odd moment of stillness: I swear the birds stopped singing.  Then it got Biblical.

But what did we care? We had books! We had a kettle! We had Buttercup!

The rain drumming on the roof was cosy, romantic even.  And surely it would stop soon.  Surely it couldn’t rain that hard for long, not when it had been so lovely and sunny for weeks beforehand? Surely not when the only footwear I had with me and with which to navigate the footpath through the field to the pub was flip-flops?

How I under-estimated the British summer.

After a few cups of tea (“Isn’t it lovely to have the camp stove?” “Watch out for the f***ing bunting!”) the drawbacks of camping began to make themselves felt. The electrical hook-up point in front of which we’d parked was about as far away as it was possible to get from the toilet block. The walk there was a slippery slide to the bottom of the hill.  The walk back was worse.

And that’s the weird thing about camping. There’s the irresistible compunction to kit yourself out with all kind of crap that make this allegedly cheap-as-chips experience about as pricey as a week in an all-inclusive in Barbados: the rechargeable lantern, the fold-away washing-up bowl, the little tables to put your cuppa on as you sit on your brand new pop-up chairs. And then there’s the satisfaction that you take from sweating for half an hour over the two ring gas stove to prepare bacon and eggs, eating standing up for another ten minutes while you wait for the kettle to boil.  There’s the way everything takes longer and is just that little bit less comfortable than it would be if you were doing it… oh, I don’t know, let’s say, if you were doing it at home.

“Ooh!” we say, “Buttercup has a camp stove! And look, there’s a little fold-down table to put your cups on when you make tea!” But you’ve left behind a kitchen! With a kettle you can plug in, and a real, honest to goodness four ring hob, and actual worktops. And that’s before you get to the sleeping arrangements (and believe me, Buttercup’s suspension wasn’t made for anything more adventurous than sleeping).

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Is it because we like to pretend we’re getting back to nature? Are we all harbouring secret fantasies that come Armageddon we’ll be fine because we have four-season sleeping bags? That we’d be able to cope without the comforts of modern life because we’ve walked three minutes to use the shower?

I think that’s it. And I’ll tell you one thing: I bet there’s a statistically significant difference between campers and the general population in one all-important aspect.

I bet everyone on that campsite had a zombie escape plan.

Why do you write?

That question was posed by the wonderful Jackie Mallon (http://jackiemallon.com/2014/05/25/why-do-you-write/) as part of what I’m reliably informed is called a “blog hop”.  Now I’ll be honest, I don’t usually hold with this kind of stuff, but I love Jackie’s writing, and I enjoyed her answers to the questions and so…

The thing is, Jackie sent this to me back in May.  And while I’m the first to admit to being a bit of a lazy cow on occasion, I have to ask myself why it’s taken this long to do anything about it. After all, we all get to the point when those blog topics aren’t exactly tripping off our fingertips – am I right? And here’s a subject that’s relevant, tried and tested, that other people have written and commented on already but where the personal perspective is mine for the taking – and yet… almost two months on, and I’ve yet to put virtual pen to virtual paper.

I have a whole pile of reasons.  They’re nothing particularly original: I didn’t have time; would anyone really be interested; wouldn’t it be better to write a poem about the plastic lid on a takeaway beverage cup instead.  They’re easy enough to trot out.  But they’re not real.  The real reason is simple and strangely embarrassing.  The truth is – deep breath…

I don’t think I know the answer.Why write

I wish I could sit here and say that I have an urge to write. It’s something deeply ingrained in my very being.  That if I go for more than a couple of days without exercising my creative muscles, I become listless and irritable and unfulfilled.  That my poor, tortured artist’s soul needs the oxygen of the written word in order to survive. (Okay, I know souls don’t need oxygen. Jeez – everyone’s a critic.)

If only that were true! At least I’d feel authentic.  I could tell myself that I didn’t really have a choice. That my muse could not be denied! That loafing around in my pyjamas, drinking endless cups of green tea and arsing around on Twitter was an inherent part of my creative genius – rather than, say, just a strong preference to having to get out of bed with the alarm clock.

I’d try and stake a claim to altruism – I just want people to enjoy what I write – and that would be true, up to a point.  But it’s no good pretending that the idea of anyone other than my husband actually reading anything I’d written didn’t bring me out in a cold sweat until well past the point of completing the first draft of my novel. And let’s face it, in the continuing absence of my six figure book deal, the chances of more than eight people actually having an opinion on my writing one way or another are slimmer than Kate Moss on the 5:2 diet.

I could say I write because I enjoy it: I enjoy playing with words and the pictures they can paint. And every so often, that’s true too.  It’s true for those times when it feels like the story is flowing, and I can hear my characters’ voices, and some idea has just popped into my mind and I don’t know where I came from but I’m suddenly absolutely certain that that’s just the way it has to be. About ten per cent of the time, in other words.

And it’s true that I like thinking of my writing as something that will outlive me.  I mean that in a very practical sense – I don’t have delusions of Shakespearian grandeur, little twenty-third century school kids poring over the collected works of the Yak, the teacher misting up her personal visi-screen and adjusting her face mask as she suppresses quiet sobs over the beauty of my prose. No, I just mean that there are a few hard copies of my manuscript out there somewhere, and that it’s possible someone will one day come across one whilst cleaning out an elderly relative’s loft, and might be curious enough to spend a few minutes leafing through it before they go back to sorting the recycling from the charity shop pile.

But I also think there’s a bit of magic in writing. No matter how hard the words come sometimes, no matter how disappointing the results.  There’s something amazing about clicking your fingers and bringing a little clay figure to life: his name’s Neil; no, it’s Andy. Click.  He’s a mechanic, but he dreams of being a professional footballer. Click. He’s got sandy coloured hair that falls over his forehead and gets in his eyes when he’s leaning over a car bonnet.  Click. He’s planning to murder his brother.

Click, click, click.

Layer upon layer, clothes and gestures and expressions, impulses and secrets and lies – lies to themselves, lies to others.  I add something here, take away something there.  There are no secrets from me.  I know it all. I create it all.

So maybe that’s really why I write: not because I’m an artist, or an altruist, or just a plain, old-fashioned egotist, dreaming of immortality.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a massive Nosey Parker.

 

Comment below and let me know what drives you to put pen to paper!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ode to a Pumpkin – the poem Twitter didn’t want you to read

So, I’m on one of several trains that make up the ridiculously convoluted journey from North Devon to my dad’s home town in South Wales, and I find myself channelling Pam Ayres.  I get taken like this from time to time and I know it’s not a good thing. But still, it’s writing, right?

I fish out the bit of paper on which I’ve scrawled the times for the four (count ‘em) different trains I need to catch for my four (count ‘em) hour journey, and I start to scribble.  The result was posted in a series of tweets – but it appears that Twitter disapproved, possibly on grounds of taste or decency. The first time around, two of my lines disappeared into the ether; the second time – the new, improved and expanded version – a different couplet was lost.

I refuse to bow to such censorship! So here it is, the full uncut version of Ode to a Pumpkin.  You’ve been warned Twitter – I will not be silenced…

Ode to a Pumpkin* (or Too Much Time on My Hands on the Train to Wales)

How I love Google images! But wait: there's no sign of the plastic lid in this photo! Could it be that the good people at the Pumpkin Café are already alert to the health and safety tightrope they're treading? Are they avoiding drawing attention to the potential death trap that is this shape-shifting container cover? I hope not, dear reader. I hope not.

How I love Google images! But wait: there’s no sign of the plastic lid in this photo! Could it be that the good people at the Pumpkin Café are already alert to the health and safety tightrope they’re treading? Are they avoiding drawing attention to the potential death trap that is this shape-shifting container cover? I hope not, dear reader. I hope not.

O Pumpkin Café, tell me why

Whenever I your hot drinks buy

And take the plastic lids off so

That I can drink more in one go

The lid transforms immediately:

Can’t force it back upon my tea!

And as upon the train I ride

Hot liquid splashes side to side,

Risking burns with every sip -

The health and safety guys would flip.

 

Please sort it so I once again

Can drink my cuppa on the train.

 

 

I thank you.

 

*For readers outside the UK, Pumpkin are a chain of cafés found exclusively – at least as far as I know – on the platforms of train stations up and down the country.  Sampling their food and drink “offer” inspired the muse – and I’m fairly confident I’ll be the only person ever to have said that.

Eagerness, envy, hope and gratitude – an evening with Julie Cohen

Not that Julie Cohen will need it, but feels like giving "Dear Thing" a plug is the very least I could do...

Not that Julie Cohen will need it, but feels like giving “Dear Thing” a plug is the very least I could do…

A few short days to the European and local elections, and the prospect of voters giving their verdicts in polling booths up and down the country appears to be creating a few jitters among our elected masters.  I suppose it’s the political equivalent of learning you have a benign tumour: there’s no immediate danger, but the sudden whiff of mortality inspires a keen sense of carpe diem all the same.  Suffice it to say that the week has been filled with “creative” ideas, deadlines for new advice measured in hours or even minutes, and a creeping paranoia about who’s been saying what, when and to whom.

All of which meant that this week’s London Writer’s Café outing to hear the brilliant Julie Cohen talking about pacing your novel provided some much-needed stimulus for my poor, neglected Right Brain.  I’d planned to tell you all about it, but Mr Phipps has got there first (see http:/misterphipps.com/2014/05/18/picking-up-the-pace/ for a summary of Julie’s wise words). So instead I’ll give you the Yak version – the emotional journey that was the two hours spent in a crowded room in the basement of a London pub.

I arrived straight from work, in good time to get a restorative glass of wine before heading to the downstairs room where our gatherings take place.  Expecting the usual variable timekeeping of LWC members to mean I’d have my pick of seats I was surprised – nay shocked – to discover that instead I had to pick my way around a veritable horde of punters, already dug in with notebooks and iPads, pens poised to record the secrets of keeping readers interested all the way to the back cover. There was a buzz in the air and, as so often at LWC meetings, I got a kick out of just being out of the office, doing something with my evening beyond collapsing in front of the telly with a tray of food; felt the excitement of being in a room with a bunch of writers, the thrill of waiting to hear something I was pretty sure was going to be good.

And so it was.

Julie opened by setting out her credentials.  Now here was a woman who’d written a lot of books, including in some seriously unusual genres.  Knowing how hard I found it to finish my first (and only complete) novel, it was hard not to be impressed by someone with that kind of creativity and work ethic.  But that wasn’t all…

Because that day, Julie had learned that her most recent book, Dear Thing, was going to be part of Richard and Judy’s Summer Book Club. Or in other words, her sales figures were about to rocket like, like – well, like a really whooshy rocket. This woman was on the verge of stardom!

The room was fairly dim, so I hope the green glow my skin took on at that point didn’t distract any of my neighbours.  I mean, Richard and Judy?!! Julie wasn’t trying to hide her glee – she told us she’d been into every WHSmith between Reading and Liverpool Street taking photos of her book next to R&J’s grinning mugs.  Quite right too. If that had been me, I’d have found a busy branch and stayed there all day, accosting unsuspecting customers until the management kicked me out: “That’s me, you know. Yeah, I wrote that.  That one. That one there.  Yes, the one NEXT TO THE PHOTO OF RICHARD AND JUDY!”

I tried to concentrate: clearly this was a woman worth listening to.  I couldn’t let the acidic envy seeping into my bones get in the way of picking up some top tips!

And dammit, she was a good speaker too.  Funny and interesting and as self-deprecating as someone on the verge of having a best-seller could possibly be. And not only did she have loads of useful things to say about keeping up the pace, she also talked about giving herself permission to slow things down.  She talked about her transition from 60,000 word romances to her first 120,000 word novel, about the editor who had told her “It’s okay sometimes for your characters to reflect.”

And that’s when it happened: one of those moments. I’d thought there weren’t going to be any more with my first book.  In fact, I’d spent so long on the rewrites, trying to address the various ill-defined bits of feedback from publishers who liked it but just not enough to offer (everything before the “but” is bollocks, right?), I thought every last idea I could ever possibly have conceived had been either used or discarded.  But after a three month stand-off with my agent in which I’d tried to persuade her I was absolutely, entirely, at the end of both my creative powers and my tether as far as that bloody book was concerned, it happened.  Julie talked about letting your characters reflect and that little light bulb went “ping”.

Of course, in strict accordance with the Law of Sod, the next day I had an email from my agent telling me she was about to re-submit my manuscript. I still can’t quite believe I told her to hold off, but there it is.  The changes were small and they’re done now. I only hope they don’t initiate another three months’ wait while she waits for me to wail and gnash my teeth and then think of something else…

But back to the workshop.

Julie went on to talk about rejection.  About having got an agent, and being really excited, and having her manuscript sent to loads of publishers, and then having them turn it down. “And,” she said, “They all said different things!” But her story had a happy ending: she heard of a new line being launched by a Mills and Boon, got in touch with the editor herself, trimmed her 90,000 word novel down to 60,000 words in a weekend (yes, you read that right) and got herself her first book deal within a week.

Now there are lots of morals to that tale if you sit and think about it for a bit – the importance of keeping up with what’s happening in the publishing industry, being prepared to edit viciously, not being too precious about your work (I’m trying, but I think I’m still on a journey with that one). But the thing I felt when I heard her tell that story? It was hope.  Just a glimmer.  A little, fledgling thing, fluttering its tiny wings inside my chest.

At the end of Julie’s talk, I joined the crowd of admirers wanting to speak to her.  I’d been too embarrassed to ask a question in front of the whole room and now I was there, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to say.  But then out it spilled, a garbled account of my manuscript’s unsuccessful tour of UK publishers, the difficulty I’d had with the rewrite, how I hadn’t thought I could do any more with it except now I thought perhaps I could after all.  Julie stood there patiently, letting the gibbering loon in front of her get it all out.  At the end, on an out-breath, I said, “…and it’s 15,000 words longer than it was and I’m just so anxious that it isn’t tight any more!”

I don’t know what I expected her to make of it.  I thought, “She must think I’m barking.”

What she said was, “Well, of course you’re anxious.”

She said some other things too, and they were reassuring and perspective-giving, and kind.  But it was those words that made me want to give her the most enormous hug.  Because no matter how supportive and lovely The Husband has been, no matter how positive my friends and family, picking yourself up when you’ve had a knock and telling yourself to keep at it, and work harder, and just do the best you can – well it’s not easy when it’s something you want that much.  And having someone who’s done it, who’s gone through the rejection and stuck with it and then not only found a publisher, but carved out a brilliant career – having them tell you it’s okay to worry sometimes…

Well, that was a pretty amazing thing.

Thanks to the London Writers Café for another brilliant event, and thanks to Julie Cohen for giving a bigger boost than she could possibly have known to someone who’d been struggling more than she’d realised. Thank you.

 

Left brain, right brain: on the fundamental incompatibility of creativity and paid employment

Hmm, I wonder which bit of my brain is producing the irritation that it's almost three hours now into the appointment window and the telephone engineer still hasn't turned up?

Hmm, I wonder which bit of my brain is producing the irritation that it’s now almost three hours into the appointment window and the telephone engineer still hasn’t turned up?

Bank holiday Monday and it’s an ungodly hour of the morning – 8a.m. to be precise.  The kind of time my body clock would turn its nose up at and refuse to acknowledge it even existed if it weren’t for the tyranny of the mortgage.  The fact that I’m conscious and typing on a non-working day is the price I’m paying for a moment of ill-considered generosity of spirit towards the end of last week when the Husband arranged a morning visit of an engineer to try and get our phone fixed. He’s having a stressful time at work, I was full of good cheer at the prospect of a four day weekend; there may have been a glass of wine involved.  Before I knew it, I’d volunteered to be the one to haul myself out of bed – a fact he gleefully reminded me of as we got into bed a mere six hours ago after a Game of Thrones box set marathon (him) and an obsessive internet search for antique brass two light ceiling spotlights (unsuccessful – me).

So here I am, half asleep and waiting for the engineer who, according to the Law of Sod, will no doubt arrive at the end of the four hour slot we’ve been given, if indeed he arrives at all. What better time to attempt to breathe some life into this poor, neglected blog of mine?

It’s been seven weeks now since I returned to work.  Time enough, you might think, to have settled into a rhythm.  Time to have reprioritised and reorganised and rearranged.  Time, in short, to have sorted myself out and found a way of fitting in full-time work and writing groups and book clubs and blogs and reading, and perhaps even a bit of writing.

You might think that. But I’m sad to report, you’d be wrong.

What have I managed to do since my nose has once again been pressed firmly against the grindstone? Well, here – in numbers – are my achievements of the last seven weeks:

  • Episodes of PTSD involving sobbing into the Husband’s t-shirt, melodramatically declaiming that I Simply Could Not Do It Any More: 1
  • Moments of realisation that I could, and in fact, had to: 1
  • Blog posts: 1
  • Book club meetings attended: 0
  • Writing group meetings attended: 1
  • Emails to agent: 6
  • Rewrites: 0.1 (based on how much rewriting was actually done)
  • Publishers to whom manuscript has been resubmitted: 0
  • Bottles of champagne not drunk at Christmas and which I’ve promised myself I will open when I eventually get that book deal: 1
  • Bottles of champagne still unopened: 1
  • Words of second book written: 0.

I’m forced to conclude it’s not looking great.

But why is this? Why the creative paralysis? Is it simply the restrictions of the number of hours in the day? Or is there something more going on here?

I was talking to another frustrated writer the other lunch time (honestly, it turns out that the civil service is full of them – if people ever start reading more, Ministers will be hard pressed to find someone to make them a cup of tea, let alone advise on policy). Her theory was that she switched to the right hand side of her brain when she was in “creative” mode, and that she was simply incapable of using her “left side” analytical, reasoning skills at the same time.  The result was that she found herself sitting in meetings musing over her colleagues’ hand gestures and psychological drivers, instead of engaging with whatever happened to be the substance of the discussion.

Is this true for the rest of us, I wonder? Do I have to switch off my creative self in order to do what’s essentially an analytical job? Does my imagination limit my efficiency?

It’s true that my mind has been known to wander at work.  One of my junior Ministers – the previous administration, I hasten to add – bore a distractingly close resemblance to 80s comedy schoolboy Jimmy Krankie. I spent many a happy hour trying to work out what a former line manager reminded me of when he leaned backwards in a peculiarly stiff shouldered way and waggled his hands as he spoke, before realisation dawned that it was one of those puppets in Stingray or Thunderbirds.  And which of us hasn’t occasionally wondered where one or other of their colleagues sits on the psychotic scale?

But everyone does that, right?

In the case for the defence, I wrote 80,000 words of my first draft whilst working full-time; and, about half of that was written after dad had his stroke and I was trekking back to Wales most weekends to see him.  Surely it’s a bit much now to be claiming that I can’t write anything half decent without a three week run up of clear minded, distraction free, Creative Time?

And yet, there’s something in this left-brain, right-brain thing all the same.

I remember very clearly the moment when my return to work suddenly became less painful. It was Wednesday lunchtime in my first week, the day after the t-shirt-moistening snivel fest referred to above.  I’d just finished a meeting and was walking back to my desk and I felt something click into place – I realised I felt different.  As my one and only blog post to date since returning to work noted, “I felt like a civil servant again”.

I’ve no idea what triggered it. It might simply have been a defence mechanism to stop myself feeling so bloody miserable.  But whatever it was, it was absolutely real to me.  From that moment on, it felt like being back at work wasn’t the end of the world. It felt like I could cope.

There’s a corollary, though, to feeling like a civil servant. No matter how hard I tell myself it doesn’t have to be this way, I feel like less of a writer. I can feel it, that idea: the one that’s creeping back in, slithering through the crack under the door of my subconscious.  The idea I thought I’d almost got rid of when I was on leave.  The idea that writing isn’t serious.  My writing, anyway.  That it’s nothing more than a quaint little hobby I turn to when I’ve got nothing more important to do. That I ought to grow up a bit, give my intellectual energy to the thing that pays the bills.  That I’m too old to be playing at make believe.

And maybe that’s what it really comes down to for me, this left-brain, right-brain thing.  Maybe it’s about believing that it’s okay to spend time on something creative; and more than that, that I shouldn’t be embarrassed about taking it seriously.

I re-read the post I wrote when I was preparing to return to work earlier today, the one that tried to set out what I’d learned in my time on leave (http://mrsholderslegacy.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/goodbye-freedom-its-been-fun/).  It said that I’d realised I didn’t need validation through a performance marking for my day job. Perhaps now Right-brain Me needs to make the same journey. Perhaps I need to make myself believe that I don’t need validation through a publishing deal. That I can take my writing seriously without having to be paid for it.

Or then again, maybe that’s just a way of feeling better about admitting defeat?