When my son was younger, I used to read picture books from the That’s Not My… series to him.
If you’re not familiar with them, there are hundreds of books in the series – That’s Not My Truck, That’s Not My Robot, That’s Not My Monster, even That’s Not My Cow! The format is always the same – they start off with several pages of, That’s not my… for example, That’s not my monster, it’s eyebrows are too hairy. Then they finish on a triumphant That’s my… That’s my monster, his spines are so prickly. (Or whatever it is).
With my new course Feel The Fear and Write Anyway coming out soon, I’ve been thinking about author fears a lot lately, and in particular, about how people might not always think they have any fears about writing.
But if you’re:
procrastinating, and rarely getting any writing done,
constantly putting other people’s demands before your desire to write, or
you never finish anything, and you’ve got a drawer full of unfinished stories,
Then fear is probably at work somewhere, whether it’s a fear about what people will think of what you write, or an insecurity about everything you feel you don’t know about writing, or, quite simply, the strongest fear of all, a fear of failure.
Sometimes, recognising our monster – in this case, what lies behind our self-limiting fear – can help us to deal with it and move on.
After all, nobody wants to keep a monster for a pet, do they? Even if it does have a very fetching pair of horns!
Let me introduce you to Emma. She’s fun to be around, enthusiastic about writing and very talented. These days she has established a writing routine that works for her, and she writes regularly, despite having four young children and a tendency to drop everything to go to music festivals.
But it wasn’t always like that. Emma’s enthusiasm and talent for writing were always there, but the writing routine was non-existent, and whenever she thought about writing, she felt fed up and blocked.
This was all because of a bad experience she had at a writing class, where she received very unhelpful feedback on her work. Far from highlighting Emma’s achievements and constructively suggesting areas for further development, the tutor for this (somehow) sought-after course, slated Emma’s work. He pulled it apart so thoroughly that her self-esteem – and virtually her will to live – were in tatters.
I might never have met Emma at all. She might have decided to give up on her writing dreams at that point. But a few years later two of her friends told her about my courses, AND she had a link to the enrolment page pop up on her Facebook timeline. Fortunately for me, Emma decided to view this as fate at work, because Emma came along to one of my courses, and she’s a joy to have in a class. Not only is she talented, but she’s so helpful to other group members.
When Emma first told me about her ordeal, and how it had stopped her from writing for several years, I was furious. How dare that tutor treat Emma’s precious writing dreams like that?
Emma explained to me that she was writing science fiction, which was far removed from the literary fiction the tutor had published, but this was no excuse at all, as far as I was concerned. Published writers – no matter how successful – should never forget how vulnerable people can feel when they first start sharing their words. I know I certainly haven’t.
When I first started writing, I was ridiculously sensitive! I remember the first time I read out a story at a writer’s circle, and I described a woman’s face ‘turning a colour somewhere between green and purple’ (with embarrassment and horror). OK, I realise now that it’s not a sentence from a great work of literature, but at the time I was pleased with it, and was quite taken aback when one of the group members stated quite abruptly that it wasn’t possible to have a colour between green and purple, and that I should use the word puce. Puce. I wasn’t even sure what the colour was, and I had to go home and look it up. And it was such a horrid word, sounding as it did, remarkably like…well, sick. My story was light-hearted and fun, with no pretensions to be anything else. Puce just didn’t fit. I felt discouraged, and never returned to the writer’s circle. (I told you I was sensitive in those days!)
As I’ve gained in experience and had many novels published, my self-confidence has grown to the point where I’m able to sift through feedback and make a judgement about whether it’s relevant and helpful or not. (If it’s from an editor, I’ve also learnt to be tactful if I don’t think so!) I always make a point in my writing classes of helping my students to develop the highly useful skill of giving and receiving constructive feedback. It’s such an important part of a writer’s development, because you can learn so much from it.
When I began teaching my creative writing classes, I encountered that vulnerability and that fear of exposure over and over again, and decided that my classes had to include an element of confidence-building in order to be of use to people.
As for Emma, she very kindly took part in the pilot version of my course Feel The Fear and Write Anyway – Self-Confidence For Authors, which opens for enrolment very soon. I asked Emma and other recent students to try it out and to give me feedback, so that I could make it as useful as possible. The power of feedback, see? I’m happy to say that all their suggestions were really helpful – and constructive!
I’m so excited that by creating an online course designed to boost writers’ self-confidence while they’re developing essential writing skills and habits, I’m going to be able to help people I might not otherwise have been able to reach. People who want to take that first step towards realising their writing dreams. Or, if they’re like Emma, people who want to recover from a set-back to move on towards their goal of completing a novel.
We came to the marshes on Thursday last week, and it rained.
We watched, pensioner-like, from the car, the hot air blower on full to clear the mist, feeling disappointed. It wasn't just a light rain, it was a full-on pelting. Stair rods. People were returning from the distant horizon with boats and dogs, slipping in the churned-up mud slurries. Comical, yet enviable at the same time, because they'd been where I wanted so badly to go.
I got out of the car with my umbrella, reluctant to be cheated from my own fix, and immediately saw the vibrancy of the purple-mauve sea lavender undiluted by the glass of the windscreen - breath-taking, awe-inspiring, painted out against the dark drama of the rain clouds. So utterly beautiful.
But the rain persisted, and the dog barked relentlessly at the windscreen wipers, fraying three tempers, so we gave up.
Those marshes filled my mind though, returning again and again in the next few days, compelling me to try once more. We returned on Monday, my son, the dog and I. No rain this time, just four mischevious boys from the campsite who asked if they could have our car when we got out to put on our boots. (I didn't get the joke either).
Leaving them - and the car! - behind, we stepped out onto the long-awaited marshes. Funny, without the drama of the dark sky, the impact of the sea lavender was lessened, though still very present. The purple was mauve that Monday; subtle and sweeping instead of breath-taking, but still beautiful. The meandering path wasn't trying to make us slip or slide either - the mud was tamed, or almost so. We could leap over gullies in the safe low tide. Eat our sandwiches on a hummock of turf.
A baby was tapping into the primitive though, crawling and splashing, naked in the marsh mud. Blackened and comfortably content, his mother speaking to me of hosing down at the campsite, ignoring thoughts of cries and protests, or at least putting them aside for the present, in exchange for her son's life-fulfilling experience and wonder.
Any adult would have been envious of that unrestrained mud frolicking, wouldn't they? I know I was. And yet I smiled and made some comment I've forgotten now and moved on in the wake of my son and the dog.
They are so similar, my son and my dog. Without inhibitions, both of them speaking to new people without reserve, both taking the less straight-forward route through the marshes to catch a glimpse of magical, darting fishes in a pool left behind by the tide.
Acknowledging their contentment, I looked back the way we had come, towards the line of woodland crouched beyond the coastal path, marking the border of the campsite. As an oyster catcher hurried past with its urgent cry, ornagey-red bill pointing its way to who knows where, I imagined my characters as I will write them in my novel, making their way from the village hall. Two evacuees - an inappropriately-dressed mother and her young son, escorted by Lilias, the land-owning woman who has just claimed them, making their way back to Marsh House, their temporary home.
"There's nothing here, is there?" says the mother, as her heel turns yet again in the soft turf. "Nothing at all."
Lilias stands to observe the woman's unsteady progress and thinks of the sea lavender, the secret gullies and the oyster catchers. She grew up beside these marshes and loves them with her whole heart, but she says only, "We shall have to get you some boots."
I'm excited about writing my book; the ideas are growing and mushrooming in my mind, but right now I don't know if I can truly walk into it, or whether it will prove to be like last Thursday's marsh - kept just out of reach by life and circumstances for a while.
"I'm going to walk along the pipeline, Mum," my son calls to me, and I turn away from Lilias and her evacuees to make sure he's safe.
On Saturday, I took my son to London for the day, and after a hectic trip to the Natural History Museum to see dinosaur skeletons and to experience earth tremors, I parked him on a bench inside the Tate Modern.
While he happily played Jetpack Challenge on his phone, I toured the exhibition galleries with a good friend and absorbed myself in the paintings of the American artist Georgia O'Keefe.
Georgia (1897 -1986) painted sensuous mountains and flowers, using glowing colours and languid rhythms to show their essence and spirituality. She was passionate about her subjects, but also revealed the core of herself as she painted them.
At times, Georgia seems super-human, living as she did until the age of ninety-eight, dedicating herself to producing pioneering art, her career spanning seven decades. And yet, this straight-talking woman of strong opinions and an even stronger work ethic, longed to have a child with her lover then husband Alfred Stieglitz.
Twenty-four years older than Georgia, Stieglitz's favourite sister had died in childbirth. He also felt too old to become a father again. (Stieglitz had a daughter, Kitty, from a previous marriage). But chiefly, he felt that Georgia's fierce focus on her art would be diluted if she had someone else to think about.
I believe he was right here - although this doesn't necessarily mean he had the right to deny his wife one of the most fulfilling experiences there is in life. Georgia, who craved solitude, and who was at her happiest battling the elements in the deserts of New Mexico in order to paint its mountains, would certainly have had to employ someone to look after any children while she was thus engaged.
But, as any mother will know, whether they were taken care of or not, it's highly likely there would always have been a part of Georgia's brain reserved for her children. Having experienced that overpowering need to have a child myself (happily resulting in my son, Alfie, now eleven-years-old) I can understand how the urge to become a mother takes you over and controls every aspect of your life. Georgia O'Keefe's paintings are filled with emotion, and I've no doubt that her childlessness is built into their fabric, as must be the affair Steiglitz had with another younger woman for many years, and his ultimate death in 1946.
Georgia never had to fit in her passionate work between the equivalents of visits to the park, requests to use the pc to record YouTube videos or trips to Accident and Emergency after stunt scooter accidents, and she has an impressive body of work to show for it.
And yet, if we are mothers and we also want to write, paint, or to create in any way, then it's possible - and necessary both to ourselves and those around us - to find a piece of the creative world Georgia had in order for us to be fully ourselves.
So, I'm spending the summer compartmentalising my life, making bargains and compromises with my son. Unashamedly using YouTube and X-Box as baby sitters to give myself time for Gorgia O'Keefe focus. As my son is extremely passionate about watching YouTube and playing on his X-Box, I'm certain I could get away with leaving him to do this all day, allowing me to work without restraint to tackle my own personal New Mexico mountains.
But I wouldn't do it.
There are crabs to be caught. Waves to be surfed. Trees to be climbed. Adopted Shetland ponies to be adored.
In a few short years, my son won't need me nearly so much, and then I'll no doubt have more Georgia O'Keefe space and spirituality than I can handle.
So for now, I'll willingly juggle my life to embrace them both.
When I travelled to Cuba in 2001, it was with revenge in mind. Don’t worry, I didn’t smuggle any weaponry into the country in my luggage. I simply chose Cuba as a destination because I’d been learning Spanish with my ex-partner, and I knew that Cuba would be a country he’d love to visit. But he wasn’t here. I was. And after I’d got beyond the unbelievable chaos of the arrivals lounge, it was to be a fortnight of amazing experiences and fun.
It was around six months since my relationship had suddenly ended, and I was still feeling very raw. Fortunately, I palled up quickly with Sharon, a fun-loving Londoner I’m still friendly with today. Together we wondered at the near-empty supermarket shelves, gazed in awe at the crumbling buildings and were chauffeured in classic cars.
We visited cigar factories, learned about black magic and the Revolution, and spent a crazy hour making – and wearing – fake Castro beards out of catkin seeds stuck onto double-sided sellotape. We played and we laughed, and we fell in love with Cuba with the ever-present images of Che Guevara looking down on our shenanigans. It was absolutely the best gift I could have given my broken heart.
When I returned to the UK, I was to use Cuba as a setting for scenes in two books. First came Murder Maker, a novella for the TEFL market aimed at people learning to speak English. It’s about woman who becomes a serial killer as a result of being cruelly dumped by her partner. Yes, I admit it, it was my therapy book.
Later, I wrote For Hannah With Love. In For Hannah, With Love, I wanted to move two of my female characters out of their usual environment to throw a spotlight on the nature of their friendship.
Havana proved to be perfect for this. The rambling, decaying streets of Havana play on your imagination and feel full of mystery and the potential for adventure. Even danger. Just right for the dynamics of a friendship to be exposed. Jen, one of my main characters in For Hannah, With Love, is a bit adrift as a person; carried on the tide of other peoples’ wishes and desires. Her time in Cuba acts as one stepping stone to her taking back control of her life, Just as, I suppose, my time in Cuba did for me.
A friend of mine recently spent four days in Havana and was just as enthralled with it as I was all those years ago. From what she says, it’s hardly changed at all, right down to the near-empty supermarket shelves. Which obviously I realise, can hardly be a good experience for its people. They are extremely resourceful people though; you’d have to be to be able to keep all those amazing classic cars on the road year after year.
So, I want to finish off by thanking them and their country for what they gave me for those two weeks I visited. I arrived feeling completely vulnerable and depleted, and left with a thousand experiences and memories to bring my characters and stories to vibrant life.
It was a magical time, and I shall never forget it.
Sometimes in life, you just fall onto a path without even really thinking about it.
There are no crossroads, no signpost; barely even any discussion on the subject. Your parents, your school, even YOU think, "You are this way, you are good at this subject, therefore you should do this." And that's it. Decision made, future path in life determined, without any maps or charts ever having been taken out of a drawer, let alone consulted.
And obviously, this way of things can work. There are plenty of people out there who were good at maths at school and who are now happily working as accountants. Sporty types who went into sporting careers. Kids who loved science who work in laboratories or in the Health Service.
But sometimes it's a different story. Sometimes the path you fall into isn't the right one for you, and then it takes a little longer, and a lot of blundering along rutted tracks in the dark before you find your true way.
For me, my dark, rutted track was Art College. My school had a strong art department, a charismatic Head of Art, and I had some talent for painting. So that was that; decision made. I would go to Art College in Brighton, and I would become an artist.
Readers, I was bewildered for almost my entire four years of training. Not about how to paint, because for the most part, I could do that, and it came relatively easily to me. No, the thing I couldn't work out, even by the end of my degree, was what the purpose of it all was.
We were given barely any formal training - my parents would have been shocked if they'd ever found out what their money was paying for. Just a space in a shared studio, cut-priced art materials, and periodic visits from a tutor to discuss our work when he could drag himself out of the pub next door.
I loved colour, and my bright interpretations of flowers in the vases I collected from Brighton second-hand shops showed nothing of my intense loneliness and lack of purpose. I felt lost and overlooked, not least by myself. It was only when I finished my degree and started to write a novel with the highly dubious goal of financing my career as an artist, that everything clicked into place and I finally found myself.
"Ah," I thought. "This is who I am."
Even though I had some talent for art, stringing words together to create a book, with the potential to transport people to a whole new world, resonated with me far more than laying oil paints down on canvas ever had. I'd found my map, my natural habitat, and my path through it. I was a writer.
But now it was the turn of those around me to feel bewildered - my friends, my boyfriend, none of them could take my writing seriously, even when I began to get published. They viewed me as an artist who also wrote, when I wanted them to think of me as a writer who sometimes painted.
I don't know why it bothered me so much, although I suppose in those pre-Internet days, I just longed to be part of a tribe of like-minded people, and I couldn't find them. So, I moved away, to make a new start. A different city. A clean sheet.
"Hello, I'm Margaret. I'm a writer. Oh, and I also paint sometimes."
There have been many different maps since then, but even though the terrain has been varied, the maps have all belonged to the same series; a series made for writers.
And my artist friends? I still see them every few years, and inevitably, at some point, they will ask me, "Have you done any painting recently?"
It's a fair enough question. I did meet them at Art College! I really shouldn't let those old feelings of being judged slip over my shoulders like an itchy cloak. And I have been creative occasionally, although these days I'm drawn more to collage rather than to paint.
I suppose it's similar to when your family is gathered together, and you find yourselves slipping into your old patterns of behaviour. But if you can avoid slamming your way upstairs to your bedroom in a parody of a teenage strop, you get yourself back again pretty quickly as you drive home.
I have this long-held dream of painting the red rock formations in New Mexico like Georgia O'Keefe did in the 1930s and 1940s.
One day, I'll definitely go there. Whether I'll reach for my palette or my notebook when I do, remains to be seen.
Authors are often advised to write about what they know. Sound advice, because then it will come across as vividly in our writing. But if we followed that advice to the letter, then what we could write about would be very limited. Sometimes you have to go out and deliberately create experience to write about - like the time I decided to make one of my characters challenge herself to perform stand-up comedy.
As a child and a teen, I really lacked self-confidence. But it wasn't until my thirties that I made a deliberate decision to do something about it. I set myself small, achievable goals, like challenging myself to say one thing during an adult education lesson, taking baby steps until gradually, over several years, my self-confidence and self-esteem increased. Now I teach creative writing and give talks to groups of business women - both things I could never have contemplated doing in the past.
The habit of challenging myself hasn't gone away though, and I like to keep my 'taking risks and doing scary things' muscles honed. That's why, a few years back, I decided to include the challenge of performing stand-up comedy in my novel The Dare Club. I knew I'd have to do it, you see, in order for it to feel authentic. Here's what I wrote about the experience at the time. And by the way, I'm still proud of this achievement! Although it has proved a difficult one to top.... Suggestions, anyone? 😉
Performing Stand-up Comedy in Greenwich
I did it! Last Tuesday night I went to London and performed my 3-minute stand-up comedy routine at Up the Creek in Greenwich in front of an audience of around 200 people! I’ve been waiting to tell you about it until I had the footage, and now I can reveal all!
Those of you who have been reading my blog regularly know that I set myself this challenge as part of the research for The Dare Club – the novel I’m writing about a group of newly divorced and separated people who set themselves challenges as part of their recovery process. My character Colette is going to have a go at stand-up comedy, so I had to do it. I don’t feel the need to try out all my characters’ dares – after all I have got an imagination. But I really felt I needed to experience the terror of this particular one.
The day started at The London Theatre with a 1-1 with Harry Denford, the comedian who delivers the course. Feeling nervous, I ran through my material, and Harry suggested I cut some things and change others. I wasn’t entirely sure I agreed with everything he said, but hey, I’m the rookie – he’s been doing this for 20 years or more, so I took his advice. Then we ran through it again, focussing on how to perform it so that the audience was involved rather than just being recited to. The session finished with him telling me that the other comedians were meeting in a noodle bar near Up the Creek at 5.45pm. “Look for a group of people who don’t look as if they should be together,” he advised me. “All sorts of people do this course.”
I went to Greenwich to look at the outside of the venue. It seemed surreal that later on I would be performing inside! But I didn’t feel tempted to flee to the nearest station to get the hell out of there. It had been far too difficult arranging childcare etc for that! Besides, I wanted to see what I was capable of.
I killed the rest of the afternoon by alternately taking in the sights of Greenwich and practising my act in toilet cubicles. Close to the Cutty Sark, I spotted a man walking round talking to himself. “I bet he’s one of the comedians,” I thought, and sure enough, when I approached a group of people in the noodle bar at 5.45, there he was.
I made myself eat something and exchanged nervous chatter. Then all too soon it was time to go. I loved the inside of the comedy club, but all those empty seats were daunting. The other comedians had invited between 20-40 guests each! Mad! I’d invited 1, my mate Sharon, who'd promised to film me doing my act.
Harry told us all to have a go on stage, to practise going on and off and looking at the ‘audience’. The lights were so bright, you couldn’t see anything!
After a long wait and lots more angst and practise, Harry announced the running order. I was to go 4th, after a guy who looked like a younger Colin Firth. I was happy with 4th – not 1st, but not having to wait too long. Good.
The place was packed out – not a spare seat! Sharon was at the front with her video camera. It was real – it was actually going to happen!
The chairs for the performers were arranged around the back of the club. It was a bit like one of those hairdressers where you don’t need an appointment and you keep moving round until it’s you turn. But when I got to the last seat, I couldn’t sit down. I was too pumped up with adrenalin. Just before the MC announced my name, I did a few jumps and arms wings, limbering up. I expect I looked like a prat, but that was the least of my concerns at that moment.
Then it was time. And amazingly, a feeling of calm settled over me as I went up the steps to the stage. We’d been told to take the mic out of the stand and to put the stand behind us. I did so – it took an age. But then I looked out at the invisible audience, said ‘hello’ and dived in.
Ok, it wasn’t perfect.
I didn’t have the mic quite in the right place to begin with so I started off a bit quiet.
I forgot to include one of my jokes, which meant the one that preceded it didn’t work quite so well.
Because I’d made some cuts, my routine was slightly short.
But I loved it! People laughed and it felt amazing. I didn’t want it to end. And when total strangers congratulated me at the bar later, I just felt so proud of myself. All the next day, I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt transformed. Who’d have thought that I, who’d once been so painfully shy I couldn’t speak up in front of people at all, could actually go up on stage and entertain a large crowd of people?
I whole-heartedly recommend the experience to everyone.
If you’d like to see my performance, you can view it on YouTube by clicking here. But be warned, it contains swearing, lies and smut, so give it a miss if these are likely to offend you!
Would I do it again? You bet your life I would! In fact, I need to seek out opportunities to make it happen.
And Colette? How is she going to get on? Well, she’s going to have a mixed experience. She’s got a particular reason for wanting to do this challenge, and because of that, she’s going to choose to ignore some of her tutor’s advice. So it could all go horribly wrong for her… Well, it’s fiction, isn’t it? I can’t give my characters a completely easy ride.