As I write this blog I am, as I usually am, on the sofa, under several cats. There’s the racket of building work outside and children stomping about. My husband is playing music I don’t like. And yet, as soon as I start typing, it all fades to nothing. Absorption is immersion. I’m in the depths of the ocean with all the beautiful, colourful words. I have one of those old diving helmets on. The ocean is silent, but completely captivating.
Absorption is immersion. I’m in the depths of the ocean with all the beautiful, colourful words. I have one of those old diving helmets on. The ocean is silent, but completely captivating.
You can call to me, I won’t hear. Hours go by. Lunchtime comes and goes. I become aware I’m thirsty or need the loo. I’ll just write this little bit. Another hour passes. The need for sustenance evolves into hunger pangs and a dry mouth. You pat me on the shoulder. I look at you and appear to listen to what you’re saying. But I’m only just surfacing, that slow ascent out of the water to avoid the bends. My helmet is still on. I don’t hear anything you just said.
Sometimes the call of words pulls me back down again. A cup of tea arrives. It goes cold. The need to pee becomes an emergency. I surface at last and yank off my helmet. You tell me, in a slightly annoyed way, that tea is ready. I’m surprised you cooked me eggs. ‘But I asked you if you wanted eggs,’ you say. You did? Oh. I never heard.
This is, like it was for my dad – and my sister too – hyperfocus at work: a peculiar ability to intensely and deeply concentrate on a task. It’s sometimes thought to be a trait in ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) – something I don’t have – and autism. Research into it is exceptionally and surprisingly limited. I write this in case it’s of interest to others and also as a way to celebrate it. I see it as a gift, although many may view it as a “problem”, especially when the focus is on less desirable activities or it’s a continuous state.
So how is it a superpower for me? Don't get me wrong, I totally sympathise with my family; there’s a great deal of patience required to live with me, to not take my ‘absences’ personally, to not get angry that I haven’t responded. I neglect basic self-care, annoy the people who matter most to me – just as my dad annoyed all of us growing up. But, ah, I finished that book. And I can tell you in good detail the news item I just read. I wrote – wow, pages. I edited a whole chapter. I got things done. That’s why it’s a superpower. Hyperfocus essentially means productive. I have never understood why people procrastinate or say they sit staring at their laptop, getting nothing down. I’m not saying what I write is a masterpiece – far, far from. If only hyperfocus meant brilliance. It doesn’t. But it does mean I can work intensively and not get distracted.
Hyperfocus for me is about words. I am an artist too and hyperfocus doesn’t exist in my painting world. For instance, I know writers who have soundtracks they play when writing books. That would be entirely pointless to me, who hears nothing when writing. However, when painting, I do hear. I can put on Spotify and sing along. I can hold a conversation. I am focussed but I’m never hyperfocussed. My pictures are the surface. My words are the beneath.
Hyperfocus is a gift to me. Just don’t try and speak to me when I’m there.
How much time do you have to write?
About two – three hours a day, it depends what time I get up. I like writing in the early morning when there’s no pressure from anyone – sometimes from 5am.
Do you keep a working notebook for writing ideas?
Yes. I LOVE notebooks and jumble them up with sketches and found pictures and quotes. They are messy, rumpled objects that I find beautiful. As well as notes, I write short stories or writing exercises by hand because I find that immediacy works best in short bursts of about 2,000 words.
Which writers / genres do you enjoy / follow?
I like books that were either written in the past or are set in the past and even better if they have a romantic thread. I can like anything though. It’s more about liking the writing style than anything. I’d much rather read a lyrical book than a plot-driven one. I tend to read more by an author if I’ve liked one of their books. I love Edith Wharton and Tracy Chevalier (though not every one of their books). On twitter, I mostly follow children’s and YA writers as they provide a great community. Matt Haig is good on twitter and a great writer. Loved The Humans.
What type of fiction do you avoid / dislike?
Sometimes there’s a lot of hype about a book and I just don’t ‘get’ it. I tend to avoid horror, though I have really enjoyed some Stephen King books and Thomas Harris. There’s nothing I totally avoid but I find murder difficult to read.
What are your reasons to write?
I grew up in a large, decrepit house with my two older siblings and our parents, spending vast amounts of time at home, playing dolls with my sister, cricket with my brother, and writing short stories about my toys and cat. I liked being alone in my room, imagining worlds and describing them through poorly-spelled words and felt-tip penned illustrations. Navigating this world meant learning to be highly attuned to every nuance; my family never gave much away. It’s made me hyper-alert to what’s not been said, to every flicker on a person’s face, every muscle tensed. It’s made me want to describe these subtleties and make sense of people’s inner worlds – or at least try to.
Why write a novel?
I like the challenge. Although I’ve written three novels before, I haven’t totally achieved yet what I’d like. Maybe I never will but I want to try again. I enjoy writing short stories but there’s something more absorbing about writing a novel. I like getting lost in that world and the problem-solving needed to get a long piece of writing to work. The first novel I wrote was ten years ago when I had three small children and found the lack of personal time hard. The novel took ages because I didn’t know anything about writing one and had simply launched in. But it was addictive and I felt so happy writing it. Over five years, I went on workshops and met lots of other writers. For the next two novels, I was more prepared but still always learning. Last year, the agent I'd had for three years felt together we’d given it our best shot and it was time for me to move on. I agreed but it was quite a knock to my confidence. While I have been dreaming up new story ideas, I’ve hesitated to really plunge in – but I have missed those highs from writing and feel now is the time to get back to it.
Do you share common interests and ideas with other media?
I am very influenced by TV – either by the visuals or acting. Ideas can come from TV. I really felt inspired by the first series of Stranger Things, for example. I also feel very inspired by dance. I really like watching any form of dance. I draw something from the emotion, I think. And music! I can’t – like some writers – listen to music as I write. Music for me has to be listened to as a thing not as a background. I’d love to somehow capture in words an expressive Bach cello or the slightly unhinged lilt of Satie’s piano.
What non-writing activities inform your work?
I watch people and listen in on how they talk, what they say. I’m a spy! I sketch people secretly too – on buses or the park. Buses are a great place to people-watch and eavesdrop! Going to the theatre (when they were open…) is inspiring too. I like plays, dance, musicals. The experience often gets my imagination ticking. Walking is the best way for me to come up with writing solutions. If I’m stuck or despondent – or even if I’m not – I’ll walk and some inspiration will pop into my head. Art exhibitions or even Instagram (I follow a lot of art accounts) can be a really great way to start off a piece of free-writing. Describing a place or a person the way an artist has painted them can be a really interesting approach and take your writing somewhere new.
In terms of writing, what are your particular strengths?
I’d say I like writing and creating character first and foremost. Dialogue feeds into that as does description.
What are you less confident with?
Plot. Building plot isn’t natural to me and I have to really consider where the peaks and troughs should be. I’m impatient about planning but have found a balance between writing freely and taking time to pause and question where I need the characters to get to next.
Most people don’t know that I can…
Use British Sign Language, up to level 1.
Most people have no idea that I have…
Moved house ten times in twenty years – half of those around one city!
In five years’ time I will have…
I’m resistant! I don’t like plans that are so far ahead… I just hope I still have all the things I have now: my family and cats.
In five years’ time I will be…
Published maybe. I would like to have a novel published. That would be incredible.
And, lastly, why is the time right to put pen to paper now?
It’s never the right or the wrong time! It’s allowing myself to not care what comes out, freeing up those dreams and drowning out those nagging, annoying worries – those ones that say I’m not good enough. I love Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing and listening to his Nobel Lecture, I feel he summed it up perfectly: “But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another, ‘This is the way it feels to me, can you understand what I mean? Does it feel that way to you?’” Now’s as good a time as any to find out.
I've been wanting to do this for ages: scan in some of my childhood pictures and stories as in my memory they were, you know, amazing... Well, they're not terrible but... Here they are anyway. Is it weird that I loved the reruns of The Men From UNCLE aged 6?! Is it weird how much I adored Mrs Pepperpot? Don't mention the multitude of cat stories, I know, I know. I had so much time on my hands, didn't I?
An Article on Girls with Undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder
by a Mother of One
“She can’t be autistic!”
How many times have we been told this by well-meaning friends and family over the last few months? How many times have we, as parents, hesitated to answer? Up until a month ago, our 17-year-old daughter had been in psychiatric care for a staggering 18 months. Before she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, she’d attempted suicide twice, spent more time in the school counsellor’s office than the classroom, and emotionally fell apart at the smallest things. She was sent to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) who very quickly tested her for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) using the then official diagnostic criteria. The results told them she was not autistic and so that was the end of that explanation for our daughter’s mental state.
Almost a year later, ASD was mentioned again by a different psychologist. This was after she’d ricocheted from Psychiatric Intensive Care Units to Open Units to General Hospitals and back again a total of nine times over nine months. No one seemed able to help her, and she herself seemed incapable of talking about the feelings that were causing the crisis in her mental health. Was undiagnosed ASD – or you might have heard it called Autism Spectrum Condition, Asperger’s Syndrome or High Functioning Autism – at the root of our daughter’s difficulties? And how was that possible when she’d ‘failed’ the initial assessment?
We ourselves were unsure and certainly any mention of autism to other people outside of hospital was met with a dismissive shake of the head; it seems everyone ‘knows’ what an autistic person is like, us included, and she didn’t fit the criteria. After all, our daughter smiles easily. She has close friends. She’s a gifted ballroom dancer. Sure, she’s always been incredibly literal, never understanding sarcasm or jokes, often observing new situations for a long time before joining in. But simply put, wasn’t she ‘too normal’, imaginative, and seemingly sociable to be autistic?
Despite the uncertainty, various psychiatrists and psychologists (a total of five who cared for our daughter across the many wards she’s been on) kept telling us that she was on the autistic spectrum, and yet they all continued to struggle to help our daughter. The hospitals either weren’t equipped with the preferred test (called ADOS) to formerly assess her – adolescent psychiatric hospitals shockingly aren’t obliged to have these tests – or she wasn’t on the ward long enough. As she was in hospital, CAHMS – who can carry out the test – wouldn’t because she was no longer under their jurisdiction. We despaired of ever getting a diagnosis. Was our daughter on the autistic spectrum or wasn’t she? And if she was – and it was important for her future care and therapy – wasn’t it standard practice to assess anyone as early as possible, even if previous initial tests had come up negative? She, and we, were left in limbo.
Specialist Autism Hospital
After a further eight months of little progress – and a further nine moves from ward to ward – our daughter was moved to a hospital that had just opened; a hospital that specialises in children with mental health problems and other difficulties, such as ASD. Finally, a psychologist with a wealth of experience and research in girls with autism met with our daughter, talked to us, asked us diagnostic questions we’d never been asked before and made her assessment. And, yes, we at last had the official confirmation that she – and we – needed: Our daughter is autistic.
I’d like to mention here something about resilience. It seems to be a buzz word at the moment: that we should all be teaching our children to be resilient to the challenges of modern life. It’s been a needling word for me. It’s suggested that I’ve not modelled resilience well enough and that my daughter hasn’t learned this vital life skill. But I’ve realised something – and I’ve an old philosopher to thank for it. ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ by Albert Camus revisits an ancient Greek story about a man condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again, forever. The point Camus found most interesting wasn’t that he let the boulder go, or that he went back down the mountain and started pushing it back again. The point was the turning, when Sisyphus looked down at the boulder and chose to start again. The number of times I’ve fallen, my daughter’s fallen – the number of times anyone who’s ever struggled with their mental health has fallen – isn’t a reflection on resilience. Choosing to try again is what shows true strength. With this in mind, my daughter, tested so much more in her seventeen years than most people in a lifetime, has shown a humbling amount of resilience.
And now with a diagnosis, she has at last – and most importantly – come a little closer to being understood.
Autistic Traits in Girls
As soon as we knew the diagnosis for certain, many of her personality traits began to make more sense. Autism in girls does not manifest in the same way as it does for boys. The initial assessment that had come up negative was never going to be positive for her as it’s geared to recognise those traits common mostly to boys only. Autistic girls may lack similar social skills as autistic boys but girls can have the ability to hide it. They copy. They watch. They grow up through primary school seeming like any other typical girl.
Our daughter had friends. Yes, she never put up her hand in class and was reluctant to make eye contact – but we’d put that down to a sort of shyness. Yes, she was often repetitive in game-play and controlling in role-paly, but she seemed happy playing. In fact, compared with her two younger brothers, she seemed the more sociable, wanting a special friend or two to come back to play schools or do a bake sale (the organisation of both was precise). But being controlling (or bossy) is an indicator of autism in girls. Not joining in, or being quiet in class, is a sign of autism in girls. Repeating set play is a sign of autism in girls. We even learned that walking on tip-toes – something she’s always done – can be a sign of autism.
There were many other clues – signs of ASD specific to girls we didn’t know about – such as reading early and intensively; having a melt down over seemingly nothing (our daughter would cry for hours if I tidied her bedroom, even if it was just emptying her bin); retreating into fantasy worlds (our daughter had a disconcertingly ‘real’ imaginary friend called Sarah Jane up until she was six). There were in fact lots of little behavioural things we thought were just how our daughter was, which we’ve had to look at again with fresh eyes.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s best not to give labels to children and young people – yes, people have said this to us too. But what happens to children left undiagnosed - or, a better description would be: unrecognised? Our daughter entered secondary school seemingly quite well-adjusted. But social interaction and the hierarchy become increasingly complex through teenage years. When someone is on the autistic spectrum, they struggle to ‘see’ the subtle shifts in expression, in tone of voice. They can often appear inappropriate or insensitive. Conversely, they are often highly sensitive. Our daughter is one of the kindest people I know, passionate about animal welfare, and often the first to comfort someone who is visibly upset. And yet, she can be completely blind to more subtle emotions. She has a tendency, for example, to persist in telling people information even when it’s clear to everyone else that they are too busy, too tired, not interested. She doesn’t recognise these clues which has led her to inadvertently offend or annoy her peers.
She actively retreated from her peer group aged fourteen. She changed school (an upheaval which she instigated because she felt so disconnected from her classmates) but it didn’t help. More and more we found her buried in fiction or dancing. She began to not eat. Her escalating anxieties prevented her from going to class. She’d swing between high-alert and apathy. In short, her mental health deteriorated. It’s extremely punishing to consider that if one of her suicide attempts had been successful, we’d have never understood what had brought her to such a dark place.
The Future for Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Much research has been carried out in recent years into why fewer girls are diagnosed / recognised as autistic. It’s fantastic that this research is opening doors to girls like our daughter. Educating teachers, GPs, health visitors and the public at large is an ongoing steep, essential climb. I wonder even now, looking back at our daughter aged three (the age most boys with ASD are diagnosed), would a GP or health visitor have recognised her as autistic? She would have smiled her beautiful smile. She’d have talked to them if they asked her a direct question. She’d have seemed happy – she was in many ways happy. Would they have spotted that she walked on tiptoes? Would they have noticed her large, precise vocabulary? Would they have seen that she rocked because she was, in fact, anxious? I’d like to think yes. I’d like to think that articles like this one at least, might alert the public to the possibility of ASD in their daughters or nieces or granddaughters. I’d like to think earlier diagnosis / recognition will prevent the huge suffering our daughter has been through. I'd like to think CAMHS are improving their screening.
Her recovery is ongoing and not without a fall or two. As we catch up on what autism means for our daughter, she continues to struggle within an adolescent mental health system poorly-equipped to treat children with ASD. One which has taught her to only feel safe behind locked doors and left her institutionalised. We have to be thankful, though, for the (belated) diagnosis and for the more appropriate therapies we now understand she requires – such as sensory therapy as opposed to any talking therapy she’s been subjected to.
Autism isn't a disease or illness that can be reversed; it's for life. I for one, think autistic people are some of the loveliest people I know so why would anyone want to 'cure' it anyway? The more the differences in autistic brains are understood, the likelier the autistic person will have a healthier, happier, more productive life. And isn’t that what we all want for ourselves and our loved ones? Girls and boys. Non-autistic and autistic. To be understood is a gift. I hope one day soon, everyone will understand that a smiling, kind, bright girl who loves to read and dance can be autistic too.
I haven't written a blog post for almost eighteen months. Like people often do, I might say 'life got in the way' but I've come to realise something: That phrase is nonsense. Life's always there, rolling on. Sometimes it happily weaves around you, seeming to give you space to get that painting finished or long-overdue editing started. Sometimes it seems to swamp you, snuffing out sparks of creativity. But not every spark - or not for me, anyway. And this is why life hasn't got in the way. It just seems to have selected which sparks are burning.
I first noticed this happening while I was at university. Just as the third and final year of my degree in Visual Communication was about to begin, my dad was suddenly dying. He smoked a pipe and the only exercise he undertook was a stroll around Sainsbury's three times a week. So it wasn't a surprise but it was still a shock. I was on course to get a high 2:1, if not a First, and had overall thought myself capable of being a Graphic Designer when I graduated. But then this gulf of grief swallowed me up. It felt like life took over, real life. A couple of clear memories stand out of that time and they all involve me crying. The course leader gave me a choice: To battle on through and finish the year or take a break and come back the following year. There was no choice for me. I battled on.
I said it was what my dad wanted and then, after he died three months on from diagnosis, I said it's what he would have wanted. But that's not entirely true. I knew I wouldn't go back. I suddenly hated Graphic Design. I hated Art. My final year projects were a torture. My marks slumped. I had to attend a meeting to decide whether my extenuating circumstances meant my now slovenly, snivelling 2:2 could be bolstered up to a 2:1. I'll never forget the pitying disappointment in my tutor's eyes.
Degree finished, life persisted in rolling on. Before my dad's got ill, my boyfriend and I had booked our wedding. I said we should still do it, that it's what he would have wanted. But unlike with my degree, I knew with absolute clarity I loved my boyfriend. So we pressed on and we got married. And in the meantime, I didn't paint. I didn't design. I didn't write a jot. I didn't do any of the things I'd spent my life doing. But I did start volunteering at a primary school. I did run art projects with them. I did apply to do teacher training. I did, in short, remain creative. I was like a half-pumped balloon, squeeze it and it bulges with air in a different direction.
So, as for the past eighteen months, life has squeezed me and pushed creativity to different places. I can sketch like a sprinter (something I'm normally not that fussed to do) but painting has been an agonising marathon. I can write a whole novel, but anything short - like a blog or short story (something I've loved before now) - has eluded me. But I've learned to go with the flow, that there's little point in fighting life. I trust my brain to spark where it feels it can and not to punish it when it's too damp and squibbly for even an ember.
Life doesn't get in the way. It only shifts perspectives, desires, interests. It can zoom lens priorities and crystallise what's really important. Yes, it can put a dampener on parts of yourself for a time but it always allows other unexpected parts of yourself to fire up and burn brightly.
* As a side note, I did attend various drawing classes five years following my dad's death and I painted my first proper painting five years after that. And it took me twelve years to write a story. Some creative sparks can take a long time to reignite. I like to think they always do.
I've been writing. Writing (almost) every day. Writing quietly. Ordinarily, I like to have a lot of time being quiet. Like to wrap myself in it like a duvet. But lately, I've had to: life has been noisy, consuming, worrying. Exhausting. So, when I can, I've retreated into my world with my characters and their familiar problems. Their world is often noisy and dramatic. But their conflicts are under my control. And I can always get a character to tell them all to 'shush'!
In this quiet way, I wrote a whole novel (at the moment, called The Sister of the Boy Who) and had Imogen Cooper and Abi Kohlhoff at the Golden Egg Academy read it. They had plenty to say, most of it good, with Imogen's parting comment being a worry, that the story was a 'little too quiet.' I didn't miss the irony. Stakes raised after serious editing, I sent it off to my agent, Kate Shaw. The Young Adult market is tough, she tells me. She's not sure how well my take on modern day realism will fair right now. At least she didn't mention how 'quiet' it is.
Perhaps once her caution would have worried me or dragged me down. Once I'd have asked myself: Then why am I writing? Who are these stories for if they never get published? But now I send the story off into the world, still with hope (there's always hope) but without the same expectation I might have had a few years ago. It's enough, you see, to just write. To love it. To be in my world of words and be quiet within it.
With The Sister of the Boy Who now temporarily out of my hands, I've begun another, one that's been brewing for a while - working title Outside In. I need to be writing, need to be creating, need to be quiet. It's a gift to myself. It's enough.
I've been reminded twice this week of the Queen's Christmas message (read it here). Whatever you may feel about the royal family, her 2016 speech had a strong message that's stuck with me: small acts done with great love can make a big difference. She said: "...It’s understandable that we sometimes think the world’s problems are so big that we can do little to help. On our own, we cannot end wars or wipe out injustice, but the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine."
So, with Imogen Cooper's post about helping two homeless people in London, and Rowena House's blog thinking about endurance and love in writing (read it here), I wondered what the small things are that I do with great love which might make a difference. Naturally, the many small things I do for my family sprung to mind. Also caring for my pets, helping out friends, creating a painting or picture for someone's birthday. All these things I do because of love. They're not entirely selfless acts. I want the 'thank you', the smile, the hug. I'm no Saint.
‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love’ - Saint Teresa of Calcutta
And then, of course, there's writing. Writing is where I really feel the smallness of what I'm doing. I do it because I love it. There's a selfish angle that writing stories makes me happy - even when it's hard, because all love can have great highs and lows. But the kind of stories I write that give me the greatest joy are stories of struggle, stories that explore compassion, evoke empathy, that tell of the darkness and of the light. These small acts of writing are always done with great love and, in their way, I hope will lead to greater compassion when they're read.
As the Queen said, I often feel helpless, both on a personal and a global level. Sometimes problems do seem too monumental to challenge or overcome. But, with each word I put down, maybe, maybe, this very small world I create can grow, ripple outward like a pebble hitting the surface of water.
A few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my new story, A Thousand Times. I was euphoric. It was so much fun to write. Ideas spun out of me. I kept in mind all of the many, many things I learned when writing Not Even Myself, all the tidbits of useful writing tips I've picked up from fellow writers, the Golden Egg Academy, Alex and Jude, other YA fiction I've enjoyed. I even made a hat based on it for the Golden Egg summer social. Yes, the hat looked dodgy but it actually won a prize - surely a sign that this draft was very possibly the best thing I'd ever written, right? Erm...
"It's fragile. Leave it alone a bit" - Imogen Cooper
So, beta readers are vital. They should ideally be writers themselves, or voracious readers. You should be able to trust what they say because they say it kindly and honestly. I have really great beta readers. I sent this first draft to three of them. After two critiques I stopped the third one reading any more because - eek - the other two had already brought up a heck of a lot of 'issues.'
Bump, I crashed. My beautiful world collapsed. That first draft wasn't as wonderful as I'd led myself to believe. The trouble with falling in love is it can often blind you to flaws. And this first draft of A Thousand Times has about a thousand flaws.
I've left it alone for a week now and tried to reimagine the parts that don't work. But I find it SO much harder to redraft than first draft. Working out which parts of the critiques I want to take on board, which parts I just need to get rid of, which parts simply need describing better.
I've read a lot about how hard it is to finish a first draft of something, that finishing is half the battle. But I've found my battle lies in the redraft, in distancing myself to see what's not working. It's analytical in a way I love to do with other people's writing but seem unable to do with my own.
I tweeted Imogen Cooper on #geaqa about what to do with a first draft and she advised caution. 'It's fragile,' she said. I didn't understand what she meant but now I do. This draft is fragile. The last thing I want to do is rush at it and, both literally and metaphorically, screw it up.
I've thought of drafts like a growing tree before, all the layers of redrafting like the invisible rings in a tree. First drafts are the shoot. And you don't pinch out a shoot until it's grown a bit otherwise it dies. It needs to be left alone awhile to sprout leaves, get hardier. The first draft needs to grow in your mind before you do anything with it.
"A writer's notebook is a junkyard of the mind."
A few months ago, I went to an amazing workshop run by author Tessa Hadley. There were many lightbulb moments (which I dutifully noted down in my notebook), but the thing I most remember is capable, brilliant Tessa taking my notepad to read aloud my paragraph (potential squirm factor = high) only for said notepad to fall apart in her hands... Pages fluttered covered in scruffy handwriting scrawled at jaunty angles, sketches half-sketched, water-stained, ink smudged... Basically, a mess of thoughts, semi-started ramblings and notes about stories long-since ditched.
So am I a disorganised arty-type with no sellotape in the house? Well, yes. But is something else going on with this ever-expanding (and ever-falling apart) notebook?
Having got to know a fair few writers, there is, among many, a bit of a stationary-obsession epidemic. A new notepad will be commented upon, even fawned over. It's frankly weird. Having studied art, many artists have a similar, disturbing fondness for a decent pencil and pad of paper. I admit it; I am not immune to a beautiful sketchpad in Paperchase and there's plenty of articles, books and exhibitions concerning famous writers and artists and their notebooks.
But what are they for? Yes, notes. Yes, sketches, ideas, a turn of phrase. Author Stephen Norfolk described them as a junkyard for the mind This is close to it. Maybe, if I look carefully, there are some gems in my junk-filled notebook. However, I don't tend to keep my junk. I put it out in the dustbin for collection each Friday. I would NEVER chuck my notebook! I don't imagine many writers would. So notebooks are more than a junkyard; they're also a creative force in themselves. Each time I take mine along to my writing group, I have evidence that I've done this before, that I've dreamed and written and drawn and (even if 98% of it is unused) my notebook tells me I can do it.
I love my notebook because it's a messy, senseless, falling apart creature. I love my notebook because it's as much an expression of me as any finished story or painting or illustration. I'd go so far as to say, it's probably better.
I recently saw something about the Myth of Sisyphus, a philosophical essay by Albert Camus. Keep reading - I promise this isn't a pretentious blog! Sisyphus was a Greek character who was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again, forever. Albert Camus discussed what Sisyphus' thoughts were when marching down the mountain, to start again in his futile task - and this is where I think there's a parallel in writing and the greatest myth of all: that, if you're a 'good' writer, writing should be easy.
Camus says: "It is during that return, that pause...(I see) a face that toils so close to stones (it) is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment."
When writing, it can often feel amazing. Like running down the mountain. Free. But often too there are times when it feels like carrying a boulder uphill. It's hard. Just when you think: 'I'm done! This draft is the final draft! I'm at the top of the mountain and can finally put down that boulder!' your beta reader or your agent or your editor sends it rolling back down to the bottom of the mountain and tells you to go right back and get it. You are not finished.
It's now, as Camus says, in 'that pause,' where we writers need to show our true grit, our greatest amount of belief and willpower: to persevere, to chose to go back, knowing the pain it took to get us to the top of the mountain but to start again anyway. It's what makes a piece of interesting writing become piece of promising rewriting. It's what grows a good manuscript into a fantastic published novel. 'That pause' is the difference between writing and being a writer. And it hurts. And it's worth it.
Thank goodness that, unlike poor Sisyphus, our torment doesn't have to be a lonely course. Sharing the pain is the best gift any writer can give themselves. It was one of the top tips Robin Stevens (author of Murder Most Unladylike) and Non Pratt (author of Trouble) gave at the SCBWI workshop I went to yesterday: make friends with other writers. SCBWI writers, like the writers at Golden Egg, are at various points on the mountain but they are all cheering each other on. 'Cos children's writers are a really friendly bunch.
Now, back to that boulder...