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?

 

 

Slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails

That’s what little boys are made of, apparently.  Not a very nice rhyme, when you come to think of it - though also rather a confused one.  I mean, puppy dogs’ tails are nice things, aren’t they? All waggy and cheerful.  And snails can be quite pretty when you look  at them, and very tasty with a bit of butter and garlic. Slugs – okay, there’s not a lot to be said for slugs. Sorry.

What’s this got to do with anything, I hear you ask.  Well, as I may have mentioned in passing, this week was my first week back in work since taking unpaid leave at the start of July.  A degree of excitement at the change got me through Monday, but by the end of Tuesday I was a miserable wretch, unsure how - or indeed if - I was going to make it to the end of the week.

“I don’t belong here!” I wanted to shout at my colleagues.  “I’m not the person you think I am. Can’t you see it? Can’t you see I’m A WRITER NOW?!”

Some time on Wednesday something clicked back into place.  I don’t know how it happened, but it did. One minute I was bewildered and miserable and ready to beg The Husband to sell up and move to the Orkneys and keep goats; the next it all seemed – well, fine.  The job was new, yes, and frantically busy, and I didn’t know what I was doing – but it all felt  manageable.  I knew I’d learn what I needed to. I believed I could be useful.

I felt – dear God, I can hardly bring myself to write it – I felt like a civil servant again.

And that made me think – what is it that makes us think of ourselves as one thing or another? Is the need  to define ourselves innate to our nature, starting even before those rhymes that tell us we’re made either of molluscs or cooking ingredients? And if that’s the case, what happens somewhere along the line that makes some of us feel we want to claim the badge of “writer”?

I’ve seen enough posts about this topic to know that the question of whether or not we deserve to call ourselves writers is something that exercises many of us. Do we qualify before we’ve had something published? Does self-publishing count? What about pieces in magazines?  Is it something about sales?

The obvious question in response to all this soul searching is, why does it matter?

The somewhat circular answer seems to me that it matters because we want it so much.  We want our efforts recognised.  Somehow, being able to call ourselves writers legitimises the hours hunched over a keyboard or notepad; the solitary, often painful process of choosing, arranging and rearranging words that, for the vast majority of us, will only be read by a handful of sympathetic friends and family – and that only if we can steel ourselves to expose our souls and share our writing with anyone at all.  It’s behaviour that could almost be a definition of madness – but give yourself the label of “writer” and it’s suddenly reasonable, admirable even. You are one of a tribe: a creative.  An artist.

Our sensitive little egos both fear and crave the title.  It’s so personal and important we can hardly bear to talk about it.  Defining the label seems crass and fatuous.  But never fear: that hasn’t put off one Rachel McCain who, confident that she bears the mantle of “real” writer, has written an epistle on what we all need to do in order to emulate her: http://www.litro.co.uk/2014/02/the-write-life-definition-of-a-real-writer/#comment-35355

Just so we’re clear how impressive she is, Ms McCain spells it out for us:

I’m a writer. Not a nonchalant blogger or a self-published author who lacks writing skills. An actual working writer. A journalist, essayist, creative writer, scribe. Call it what you will, but I am a professional nonfiction wordsmith.

(Heaven preserve us from nonchalant bloggers. )

She then goes on to explain what this requires, which seems to amount to writing in a notebook at unsociable hours, using a thesaurus and reading (second-hand books, apparently, which as we all know are morally superior).

Hope he's been accredited by Rachel McCann...

Hope he’s been accredited by Rachel McCain…

For someone who claims to be “passionate” about plot structure, Ms McCain’s argument is a little difficult to follow.  There’s something about caring about your work, being keen on punctuation, having churned out stuff for a long time and having a degree (goodness knows how all those eighteenth century writers managed to produce classic fiction without the aid of a Masters in Fine Arts).

And then she gives the game away:

My issues center on those who lack substantial credibility and a modicum of talent – but still call themselves writers, still feel they can start from the top, so to speak. Unskilled self-published authors, brain-dead bloggers, lifelong townies who are given a literary soapbox: If it wasn’t for technology, you probably wouldn’t have a page to write on.

Here’s someone who’s stamping her little foot because writers like E.L. James can publish work that isn’t going to win any literary laurels, but – gasp! – people nevertheless want to read it. And she’s made a packet doing it!

It’s just not fair! There’s poor old Rachel, on her second writing degree, and former deputy editor, no less, of Home Town Media Group  (a “small community newspaper company in New York”), scribbling away for over a decade and still working on that manuscript (it’ll be ready any day now, I’m sure) - and NO-ONE CARES! No-one’s given her a badge to say how wonderful she is! No medal of honour to distinguish her from this dreadful woman who’s just come along and written a few books millions of people have enjoyed reading!

The world’s gone to hell in a hand basket.

Hmm, I smell something a bit pungent here. It must be the odour from that veritable vineyard of sour grapes.

Well, here’s one nonchalant, brain-dead blogger who’s about to upset Ms McCain and others of her ilk.

Yes, I’m a civil servant. And you know what? I’m a writer too.

And you can stick that up your MFA.

Goodbye freedom: it’s been fun.

Well, here it is at last: the final week before I return to the daily grind, the rat race, the spirit-sapping, temper-testing, stress bucket that is paid employment.  And what better way to celebrate this milestone than to throw myself out of the nearest window? Return to work

Sadly, however, the nearest window is right in front of me and a mere seven feet or so from the ground.  And there’s a plant pot just underneath and I’d be bound to end up crushing the miniature daffs.  And they’ve only been out for a week.  It hardly seems fair.

So fie to window jumping! Instead, I thought I’d use this post to look back over what I’ve learned over the last eight months.  Here it is, pop pickers, one last list before I go over the top…

1. I am not my job.  I’ve always suspected as much, but it turns out it’s really true! I don’t need validation through a performance marking. I don’t need to feel like a failure if I haven’t listened to the Today programme. Guess what? Lots of people don’t! Lots of intelligent people! I know some of my colleagues won’t believe this, but honestly, it’s true. I’ve met them!

2. My writing is not a complete dead loss. I’ve finished a book. A whole one. And I’ve got an agent and everything.  And a publisher! Okay, a French one not a British one, but still.  That means I can’t be completely rubbish.  It does mean that, right?

3. How I love praise! I love it. I love  it, I love it, I love it.  It embarrasses me too, and I never really know how to reply – but oh, how it motivates me!  If only someone had told me I was good at my job – unequivocally, mind, without any of the ands or buts – in say, the last five years, I might still care about my career in the civil service.  I only say “might”.

4. It’s not all about me. No matter how “self-directed” I’d like to think I am when writing, if I want my work to see the light of day – at least through the traditional publishing route - the time comes when I have to place the product of my blood, sweat and tears in other people’s hands. I may be closer to being mistress of my own destiny, but I’m not its absolute dictator.

5. That thing about perseverance over talent? Oh yes.  Okay, it’s hard to judge talent, but there’s absolutely no doubt about the other bit. The emotional see saw of the submissions process is like nothing else: from the kind of happiness that makes you wake up with a smile on your face each morning (the editor’s taking it to acquisitions!) to feeling like a deluded, talentless, idiot (they’re not making an offer). There’s only one way to deal with it: cry like a baby, then dry your tears and get on with the rewrite.  Happily, though…

6. There are a lot of lovely people out there. There’s a vibrant, passionate community of writers at all stages in their careers ready to offer guidance and support.  There are bloggers, and writing groups, and book clubs, and insightful people who love to read. And they’re all producing a wealth of content, all that wonderful stuff to learn from, accessible in a few clicks of a mouse.

And that brings me to you.

When I started this blog I did it because I’d heard that it was important for aspiring writers to have a “platform”.  I didn’t realise that it would help me find my voice as a writer, or that I’d come into contact with so many people who were prepared to give their time to read my work, to give me their thoughts, and even to come back and do it more than once.  I didn’t realise how much pleasure and stimulation and kindness I’d find in my own little WordPress family.  It’s been a blast.

I’m going to have to parcel out my time more sparingly in the months ahead, so there’ll be fewer entries here.  But I’m intending to post at least once a month, just to whinge let you know how I’m getting on. And I’ll be spending my evening commute catching up on what my fellow bloggers are up to.

And there’s one thing I’ll be holding onto when I’m standing on that platform on Monday morning.  It’s not rocket science, and it sounds annoyingly like one of those irritating posters they stick up on the walls of gyms with some smug sod climbing a rock face or surfing a massive wave. But still, it’s what I’ve learned.

I’ve walked away once and the world didn’t end.  And I can do it again.

 

Qualification shmalification: who needs an MA in self-publishing?

What’s the point of a qualification?

If anyone had asked me that question before today, I would probably have answered something along the lines of it being a combination of a) proof for an employer either that you already have the knowledge and skills needed to do their job, or that you’re generally bright enough to pick them up; and b) a sort of pat on the back to yourself for spending time and energy learning something new. It can be both of those things, or one or the other, and either is fine. But basically, that’s what it’s all about.

"To Amazon!"

“To Amazon!”

That was until today.  Because today I heard about the University of Central Lancashire’s new MA in – wait for it – self-publishing.

Now I’m not going to come over all Michael Gove here.  If someone wants to do a doctorate in the evolution of the daleks, or the plot structure of Hollyoaks, or how that fairly thin woman without luggage managed to take up the entire corridor all the way between the Jubilee and Bakerloo lines at Baker Street this morning, that’s fine with me.  Hell, my degree was in Egyptology, so you’re not going to find me throwing stones in that particular glass house.  All of these topics come under the general heading of “self-fulfillment” in my book, and if you can afford the time and money, why not?  Who knows, you might even stumble across a shiny new logarithm to prevent tube station corridor-hogging by skinny women in leggings.

But self-publishing? Really?

I mean, presumably the way you demonstrate you’re up to the requirements of the course is – I don’t know – to publish something? And if you’ve gone to the trouble of writing that something, wouldn’t getting it out there for the world to see be reward enough?  Wouldn’t wanting people to read the thing that you’ve pored over and sweated over and drained your very lifeblood into be kind of the most important thing?  And wouldn’t the best possible indicator of how well you’ve done the job be, not a certificate and a photo of you wearing a silly cap, but the number of copies you sell?

As for impressing a potential employer… Imagine the conversation – sorry, monologue:

“Well when I’d finished writing The Amazing Adventures of Millicent Muckraker, I naturally considered self-publishing. So I took myself out for a coffee, and I was really impressed with my vision for the book.  I was nice enough too, and I obviously had my best interests at heart… But when it came down to it, I just wasn’t happy with my credentials. Anyway, a year later, I got in touch with myself again and this time I had this great qualification – oh yes, from the University of Central Lancashire – and I thought: yes, this is the self-publisher for me!”

And before people tell me I’m underestimating the new market in assisted self-publishing, that’s not how this course is selling itself. There’s no mention of “assisted” in the title; no reference to dealing with authors who refuse to have their work edited, or to accept that they might not meet with the success of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Needless to say, that doesn’t mean the marketing team haven’t mentioned E.L. James in the blurb, for they have, the not-so-subtle implication being that fame and riches await those prepared to shell out a little upfront investment in the other UCL.  After all, says course leader Debbie Williams, gamely attempting to maximise her market, “Everyone has a book in them.”

A course in self-publishing I can get behind.  Everyone I’ve spoken to who has any experience in it says it’s bloody hard work, and giving people the skills to do it well seems a perfectly legitimate endeavour. But the idea of self-publishing as an end in itself? An MA – a post-graduate degree, no less – not because you’ve managed to produce anything worth reading, but because you’ve got something, anything, published on Amazon? That seems a pretty hollow enterprise to me.

Let me know what you think! Am I being narrow-minded? Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with a self-publisher getting an extra couple of letters she’ll never use after her name when she’ll be doing all the work anyway?  Add your comments below…

And the pot of gold goes to…

Pot of goldWhen I was very little, perhaps four or four years old, I was fascinated by rainbows; and, mercenary little so and so that I was, what fascinated me most of all was the promise that at the end of the rainbow lay a pot of gold.

It seemed to me that this was something I would rather enjoy possessing. So when one day an April shower had been followed by a particularly brilliant spell of sunshine, I was thrilled to see a perfectly formed rainbow with one end very clearly resting in a field some little way from our house. Unfortunately for me, getting to this field meant walking along a main road, something I knew I was not allowed to do on my own. Being of a practical turn of mind, I therefore announced to my father that I wished to go and collect the pot of gold, and asked him to take me to its location.

I recall dad attempting to explain that this was not as easy as it looked – the rainbow would move the closer we got to it. I was not to be put off by this kind of defeatism, however, oh no! Poor dad was urged to leave his cup of tea and set off immediately before the rainbow – and my valuable reward – disappeared.  Ever the good sport, he complied, and we both trotted off down the lane, dad carrying the shovel used for cleaning out the grate and which I’d insisted he bring along so that we’d be able to dig up the buried treasure.

Well, it must have taken all of five minutes to discover the unfortunate truth. We’d barely walked ten paces before it appeared that the rainbow had moved. Dad pointed out that its end now lay in the middle of the road. Clearly, this presented a problem: not only did the new location raise some Green Cross Code related difficulties, but digging up the tarmac would probably require something with a bit more heft than a fire shovel.

But I refused to give up that easily – if getting the pot of gold was simple, after all, there’d be troops of people dotting the landscape after every light shower. Keeping tight hold of dad’s hand, I pressed on, eyes fixed to the treacherous rainbow. It made no difference: a few seconds later it had moved again, now appearing to rest half way up the side of the mountain. At that point I was forced to concede: there would be no pot of gold that day. With a patience I’m confident I wouldn’t have been able to muster with any child of my own, dad attempted to explain to me how a rainbow was formed. Most of it, I’m sure, passed me by, but I did take the words “optical illusion” into my heart from that day on. I wouldn’t be fooled again.

This Sunday changed all that.

Returning to London from a visit to the self-same hero of our tale, the skies had opened up for their customary celebration of our motorway driving. The day was dark, the roads were wet, the radio was playing its usual rubbish.

And then it happened.

A rainbow appeared on the road before us. It was bright. It was beautiful. And it ended at our car.

I looked.  I looked again. I exclaimed and alerted the Husband.  There was quite a lot of pointing.  Some jiggling in my seat may have been involved.

Clearly not a frustrated rainbow hunter himself, the Husband failed at first to grasp its significance.  But the rainbow didn’t care.  It stayed where it was for ages – well, three minutes at the very least - shimmering and glittering and very decidedly ending on our bonnet. The Husband said something uninteresting about headlights; then, rousing himself in an unsubtle attempt to humour his jibbering spouse, put forward the rather sweet theory that this made us the proverbial pot of gold.

I’m not buying it though.  Since an exciting looking casket had sadly not materialised in our boot by the time we reached home, there can be only one possible conclusion: this is an omen! I’ve bought the lottery ticket.  Roll on Saturday…

UPDATE: Lottery ticket unsuccessful.  Perhaps the rainbow got the week wrong? Will try again next Saturday…

Malevich, Danielowski and the Importance of Form

At the tail end of the horrid throat infection (I’ve been ill – have I mentioned?) Husband and I had run out of crap telly to watch and were searching for something to do that didn’t involve leaving the house or, ideally, the sofa. Given that we’re past that kind of thing except on high days and holidays – and besides, I was still infectious and revolting – we turned to the obvious option: the board game. Well, not quite a board game as there wasn’t actually a board, but a game involving cards and stuff, nonetheless. It was called “Psychogames” and was a Christmas stocking filler I’d bought my psychology graduate spouse a couple of years earlier but had never made it out of the box. It contained a series of quizzes, questionnaires and so on intended to give you an insight into your “true self” – and who doesn’t enjoy that?

Well, we worked our way through the first few, and they were entertaining enough (“which image of a garden reminds you most of your relationship?” was a particular highlight); and then we came to the pictures. No photos or Old Masters here, and no Rorschach ink blots either: these were all abstract art prints. We were instructed to talk about what we thought of them – did they remind us of anything, how did they make us feel? – and then to turn over the card and read the text on the back, which would help us consider what our responses told us about ourselves.

Now I’m not very good with abstract art. Occasionally I come across something I like – I’m capable of appreciating a Kandinsky on a purely aesthetic level – but spend time considering whether that line might be running either in front of or behind that circle, and what that’s allegedly saying about the duality of life and the impermanence of matter? No thank you. So I struggled here, feeling ever more of an unimaginative dolt as we went along. The text pretty much corroborated that conclusion. To summarise: appreciate the line/circle/duality of life metaphor and you’re a risk-taking, adventurous creative type (or to put it another way, “better”), think it all looks a bit of a mess, you’re an over-cautious, uncreative pedant (or to put it another way, “FAIL”).

Evidently sensing he was onto a winner, Malevich painted at least four of these.  And a red one.

Evidently sensing he was onto a winner, Malevich painted at least four of these. And a red one.

Increasingly desperate to prove that I did have an artistic bone in my body, I found myself looking ever closer at the images, wracking my brain for something interesting to say. Which is why, when we came to Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (surely you know this one, daahling? Don’t you know it’s a seminal work?) I found myself squinting at the – er – black square, and wondering aloud whether the faint network of creamy coloured lines I could just about make out on its face was there by design or the result of age or damage.

It turns out it’s damage – the square started off pure black and the paint has cracked over time (see Philip Shaw’s commentary on the painting http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/philip-shaw-kasimir-malevichs-black-square-r1141459). But that made me think: if you can spend time pondering a black square and its failure “to represent this transcendent realm” which apparently “serves ‘negatively’ to exhibit the ‘higher’ faculty of reason, a faculty that exists independent of nature” – why not spend as much time on the cracks that have appeared there as a result of “nature” itself? Why, in fact, would anyone spend any time at all looking at a black square of paint and thinking anything of the kind? Any more than they’d spend time looking at – I don’t know – a blackboard against a white wall and considering what it has to say about the meaning of life?

Some of the goodies in store for you in the House of Leaves.  "A meditation on the way we read" according to Peter Beaumont of The Observer.

Some of the goodies in store for you in the House of Leaves. “A meditation on the way we read” according to Peter Beaumont of The Observer.

Which brings me to one of the books I read over Christmas: Mark K Danielowski’s House of Leaves. It’s a remarkable novel for many reasons – not least that a publisher was persuaded to make what must have been a significant outlay on a debut author, producing pages with the text at funny angles, loads of blank space, facsimiles and maps and photos, and a doorstep sized volume.  It’s a sort of Blair Witch Project in print, purporting to be an academic book on the supernatural events – partly documented on film – at a particular house, written by a man who is now dead, to which copious notes have been added by some chap who’s come across the book as a series of unsecured pages, post-its, maps etc and is attempting to piece it together, whilst apparently being targeted himself by supernatural forces. It’s not easy to describe, and it’s not a walk in the park to read either – footnotes all over the place, footnotes on footnotes, appendices by the armload. However…

And there's more...

And there’s more…

I read every word. I read the long, long, long, list of architectural styles and notable buildings that formed a single footnote running down the side of about six pages in what must have been eight point font. I read every single appendix (though I was relieved when I turned to the one that the “editors” then informed me had been “lost”). I looked at the sketches of the black interior of the subterranean structure of the house – not a million miles away from Malevich, now that I think of it. Some of it was interesting, some of it was scary, and quite a lot of it was really dull. But I read it all because I didn’t want to miss anything important. I read it with more attention than I would ever have given a bona fide academic treatise because it was a work of fiction.

It's even got it's own black square. Take that, Malevich!

It’s even got it’s own black square. Take that, Malevich!

I have to conclude then, that despite my irritation at being asked to stare at a square of black paint, there is something about the medium that commands attention; something about the intention of the artist or writer that elevates a work from its material form.  It’s because he or she produced their work with a purpose, trying to communicate their ideas, that it’s worth spending time on our response. Perhaps after all, even if it’s not my thing, it’s only polite to reciprocate the effort?

I can’t help though, but feel a faint distrust of the particular kind of abstract art – Malevich’s squares, pretty much anything by Rothko – that looks as if it could have been dashed off in approximately eight minutes. I can’t rid myself of the creeping suspicion that that is precisely what the artist has done, and is laughing up his sleeve at the idiots spending hours planted in front of his canvas, declaiming its fascinating insight into the “principle and passion of organisms” (in case you’re wondering, that was Rothko on his own work), the only real principle at work that of the emperor’s new clothes.

That, at least, is something it’s nigh on impossible to pull off as a writer of novels.  No matter how much blank space Danielowski incorporates in some of his pages, it must have taken him ages to put together House of Leaves. And it’s undeniably well written.  The characters are utterly believable, the story is intriguing, the whole reading experience feels unusual and discomfiting. I suppose you could say that, as a reader, you feel a faint echo of the discomfort of the characters, adrift in an alien environment.  It certainly gives you plenty to think about.

Even so, I don’t think I’ll be rereading it any time soon. And I won’t be making a weekly pilgrimage to the Tate Modern either. But perhaps, next time I’m confronted with art that makes me uncomfortable, I’ll try not to get irritated by the implication that I’m not clever enough to understand it. I’ll try to recognise that the artist is seeking to communicate ideas, in a way that makes sense to him or her even if it doesn’t make sense to me. And I’ll try to spare a bit more time to hush the internal sceptic and think about what those ideas might be.

Something wicked this way comes

alarm clockOn this day in six weeks’ time I will be reintroducing myself to a sound I have learned to ignore over the last six and a half months: the garbled blaring of the radio alarm. No longer will I turn over with slight and fleeting sympathy as the Husband drags himself from his duvet nest and stumbles to the bathroom. From 3 March, I shall not ask for whom Capital FM tolls: it will toll for me.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a civil servant who looks forward to returning from leave is a Treasury tag short of a paper trail. That’s not me, dear reader, and after spending more than six months away from the daily grind, I have to conclude that I have missed the open-plan blandness not one teeny tiny iota.

I haven’t missed the erratic heating, nor the staticky blue carpet, nor the plasticky desks, nor the crap canteen, nor the cold, depressing reception area, nor the lackadaisical lifts with the scratches at the edges of the doors that give the uneasy impression they’ve had to be crowbarred open on more than one occasion.  I haven’t missed the sheer bone-numbing knackerdness of those mornings of untangling myself from the still-dozing cats, feeling as though it’s as much as I’m ever going to be able to do just to get myself vertical and it’s still only Wednesday.  And most of all, I haven’t missed that ever-present knot of anxiety, the stress of the current crisis, the foreboding about the next one, the corporate bollocks, the emails, emails, emails…

I could go on, but if I do I’ll have to throw myself out of the window.

Still, having failed to land my six figure publishing deal/ lottery win, there’s only one thing to do from here – back to the Rat Race I shall go. Ee aye ee aye ee aye sodding oh.

I think I can, I know I can, I think I can... oh God, I feel sick.

I think I can, I know I can, I think I can… oh God, I feel sick.

In the interests of avoiding the Slough of Despond, I have decided to take heed of the words of the great Monty Python and attempt to look on the Bright Side of Life. So with that in mind, here are twenty, ten, five, three reasons that going back to work will be A Good Thing.

1. We will have more money.  This is not to be sniffed at. The house needs various things doing to it. We found a roof tile in the front garden yesterday.  And we’ll be able to afford more exciting holidays.  Not a big deal for me at the moment – what do I need a break from? – but the poor Husband is stressed to the eyeballs and could do with more than a weekend on a freezing campsite.  Which brings me to…

2. I will appreciate holidays more.  The downside of not spending every day anxious/frustrated/depressed is not needing an escape from it!  Now I can recapture that blissful moment of shutting down the PC for the last time after a week of working even longer hours than usual to buy myself a break from the office.  Hurrah!

3.  I will have a renewed sense of urgency about my writing.  Book Two will gain new status as My Potential Way Out.  Okay, I won’t spend so much time on it.  This blog may have to hibernate (besides: what will I actually have to talk about when anything juicy will have to be censored?). I may not get along to so many readings/ book club meetings/ writing workshops.  But hey, that will just motivate me even more!

I’m sure there are other benefits too. I just have to find them.

Wish me luck.