Most of us feel lonely from time to time. For writers, loneliness can come with the territory.
There's this image in our heads of the solitary writer, head bowed over the desk, the space illuminated by a lamp, working through the dark hours of the night ...
They're probably doing that because the late hours are the ones where there are no distractions. Everyone's gone to bed, the house is quiet, the phone isn't ringing and the river of emails has dried up until tomorrow.
If we're full on and in the middle of a piece of work, we cut ourselves off even more. We go out of our way to avoid people, declining invitations, shopping in the half hour before a grocery store closes at night, taking our daily exercise by the light of the moon.
Carolyn Murnick, a senior editor at New York Magazine, said, "I've always had a sense that it's not the healthiest to stay inside for three days writing, because then when you go out into the world, you feel a little out of sorts. In the same way it takes some time to get into the writing headspace, it'll take you a while to get back into the space of being with people."
I understand that. If I've been on a writing bender, then go out into the world to buy cat food and run into someone I know at the shop, I get tongue-tied, often can't remember their name, have little to talk about, feel the flush of embarrassment rising and hastily make my exit.
Solitude seems to come with the writing life but ask a writer how she or he feels about this and they may well reply, "I love it. It's great. I've never been happier."
Hmm. What's with that?
I look at my own writing life and I am content. It is a lonely occupation. I spend the greater part of every working day here, alone, with Betsy the cat. I may not speak to another living person all day but I don't mind it because the solitude gives me the space I need to write. It's hard to do that with a lot of people around.
And yeah, I get lonely sometimes, the deep-seated sad type that moves in like a grey, dampening mist and settles in for the long haul, and then I wish I had a more sociable job. Being too much on one's own isn't the best, even for writers, and finding a balance requires pushing out of the creative cocoon, making sure you do see your mates, go for walks, see movies, drink in bars and have trips away.
It was about ten years or so ago that I finally understood, and accepted, that writing would become my life. It was almost like going into a convent, giving up social interaction, sacrificing a great party for a night before the computer, and other things I had to give up, not the least of which was a good income.
I knew the loneliness that lay ahead, the unique disconnect from the world that, in the strange way of creating, enables me to write about it and communicate my thoughts and so involve myself in the passing parade and the flowing river.
Was it worth it? Yes. Of course.
People often begin conversations by talking about the weather.
In fact, writing about the weather is a prompt I often use to get myself started, especially in my journal. I put the date, then start cracking on about the weather - hot, cold, wet, windy, whatever.
And because the weather has been so extraordinary, and, in some cases, quite dangerous this season, it's a really good way to kick-start your writing, and it may even lead you to write about another time in your life when weather played a memorable role.
Some of the wild wind we've been having here reminded me of a summer stay up at Whananaki, in Northland, many years ago. A friend and I were lucky enough to have use of an old caravan parked on some beautiful land near the beach. There was an outdoor long-drop dunny, anchored to the rock, with splintered and salt-burned wooden walls and a creaky door on well rusted hinges. The toilet seat was also made of wood, worn smooth by countless bottoms. The cracks in the seat pinched your bum when you sat down, and of course the long, dark hole below was excessively threatening to all five senses.
One night a storm came in. We had no electricity, only wavering candles and flash lights. We hunkered down in the caravan with our storm provisions: lukewarm beer and cold baked beans on stale bread. The brave little caravan shook and rattled. The wind hissed, whined, and pummeled the frail structure while we recited drunken poetry and sang songs to ourselves, white-knuckled.
Inevitably, after beer, one must venture to the dunny. I put it off for as along as I could.
Out I went into the tempest in my foul weather gear, little flashlight beam piercing through the raging wind and horizontal rain. I made it to the dunny for what would be a speedy wee.
It seemed as if the wind was blowing up through the longdrop hole, wailing and moaning carrying with it the overpowering scents of decomposing matter mixed with the salt of the sea, while the entire dunny vibrated with the fierceness of the gale. Rain shot through the splinters and cracks in the walls, stinging my face and exposed bottom. I knew then with the certainty that can accompany inebriation, that the dunny would blow over, fly down the hill, onto the beach and into the raging, boiling, surf, with me trapped inside, flailing madly about with my foul weather pants around my ankles. The indignity of it.
So certain was I of my impending doom that I flung myself out of that dunny and straight into a sodden, solid, soaking wet, smelly lump of animal that had taken shelter outside. I shrieked, it snorted and galloped away. In the flashlight beam I caught the tail-end of a sheep, bounding off into the dark night.
Does writing about the weather take you back to memories of dunnies and storms and soaking wet sheep?
Taking time to relax over summer is what we do.
After a year of hard work this 'down time' is vital to our health and wellbeing.
So far this summer I've spent a lot of time hanging out on the deck, watching the birds hop around the front yard and frolic in their bird bath, reading, visiting with friends ...
But I haven't done any writing.
Well, not on paper on or the computer, apart from Blogs and work related items.
I'm writing in my head at the moment.
Writers do tend to sit and stare at things for long periods of time. Other people think we're slacking off but in actual fact, we're working, thinking about our writing, formulating plots, characters, turning points, dialogue, thinking of just the right words to express what we want to say.
Right now, I'm doing a lot of thinking about the memoir I'm writing about my Mom. This process is enhanced by my rediscovery of forgotten family artifacts. I've been unpacking boxes places in storage years ago. Each box is a treasure trove of photos, scrapbooks, pieces of art work, and little things Mom displayed on shelves and walls.
Each item provokes memory, which inspires the writerly thoughts: where does this fit into my book? Does it belong in there at all? What story is attached to this thing? Who touched this item long ago? How did it come into our family in the first place?
Before we begin to write, there is thought. A lot of it, in my case. I have to think it through, ponder it all, sift it gently in my mind, filter out the essential elements, the 'maybes' and the 'absolutely nots'.
The New Year is fast approaching and for those of us who enjoy writing journals, one of our resolutions may be:
I will write more in 2018
I will write every day in 2018
Both seem like tall orders - are they achievable, or are we setting ourselves a Mission Impossible before the New Year even begins? And can you imagine writing anything on New Year's Day apart from perhaps, "I don't feel too well today."
If you're wanting to improve your writing discipline, become a better writer, you simply cannot beat that regular practice of getting something down in a journal as often as possible, preferably sticking to a routine rather than relying on a grab-bag of days and times. Writing every day is ideal but not always realistic or practical. However if you opt for it, even if you manage just a short sentence like, "I went to the beach today and it was good", at least you are showing up for your writing date. Good on you.
Perhaps go easy on yourself with a resolution and commit to writing three times a week in the coming year, at a set time that you know is going to work for you. There's nothing quite so disheartening as making our resolutions and failing to reach first base because we've made them unrealistic.
You may decide to finally tackle that novel or short story that has been badgering you from the sidelines for months. What a great resolution: I will write my novel this year. OK - make a plan: how are you going to achieve this writing goal? Make your plan realistic, one that is flexible enough to roll with the punches, and the highs and lows that life inevitably brings.
Whatever your writing goals for 2018, I wish you every success and full speed ahead! Start the New Year with passion for your idea, and energy and drive to make it happen.
As Dorothy Parker once said, 'Never grow a wishbone where your back bone ought to be.'
My mother was a great storyteller.
Many of her tales came from childhood days spent in the coastal Florida town of Fernandina Beach. For a number of years, her parents managed the Keystone Hotel in Center Street. They lived there too, and many of Mom's best stories came from that time.
Few intrigued me more than the one about the night blooming cereus.
Her Dad, Papa Louis, was a keen gardener and prided himself on nurturing some plants that were unusual for a coastal Florida town. One of these was his night blooming cereus, a rather exotic specimen (of the cactus family) that bloomed once a year, and only at night.
The plant sat in its ornate pot on a table in the hotel lobby. Months and months went by. Nothing happened. People marveled at this unusual character sitting there, seemingly inactive, but all the while plotting its stunning nocturnal, debut and demise, because the bloom would wilt and die by daybreak.
Needless to say, when the time was near, the whole town gathered in the lobby of the Keystone Hotel in Fernandina Beach to watch the beauty unfold in the gathering dark. One can only suppose they watched it by candlelight - and few photos of the one hit wonder exist, for obvious reasons - so I've included a rather dashing drawing of the one I think my grandfather cultivated and showed to the world on that glamorous night of wonder.
As a writer, the whole idea of this flower blossoming only once, at night, gave me plenty of fodder for stories and I wrote one which I thought was hauntingly beautiful and mysterious. I was so caught up in the magic of this small, perfect, blossom that I made a critical mistake: I indulged my delight in the bloom and its magic to such an extent that nothing really happened in my story: there was no turning point, no crisis, no conflict, no resolution.
An astute friend of mine listened as I moaned about the narrative going nowhere, and how I didn't know how to make this story about a priceless and rare plant more thrilling, and she sighed with boredom and said, "Have someone drop the bloody thing on the floor."
I was horrified and appalled by her suggestion - I could not 'kill my darling' as William Faulkner would have suggested, had he been listening.
But sometimes that's what we have to do, because the writing isn't all about us and what we want - it's about our readers. Our creation/words/ideas/characters may be precious to us, we love them and cannot bear to part with them .. but if they serve no purpose to the story or the reader, then they will have to go.
I never did write that ending into my story about the night blooming cereus. I simply couldn't bear to kill off this gorgeous thing I'd written about. It broke my heart.
Lesson One: kill your darlings. Sometimes you have to.
Here is a photo of a rocking chair.
It has a nice cushion with birds, it sits in a bright room by a window, it looks like a comfortable place to hang out with a book.
Does this chair have a story?
You bet it does.
This chair belonged to my Grandfather, my Mom's Dad Papa Louis. He used to rock her in it when she was a little girl.
He rocked in it when he was living his final years with my parents. It's been in our family ever since.
My Mom rocked me in it when I was little. I remember so clearly the terrible earaches I used to get before my tonsils came out. Mom would rock me, late at night, when I couldn't sleep. I had a little corduroy bathrobe then; it was sky blue, with a pocket that had orange and red embroidered flowers on it.
Mom rocked my sister and my brother. Visitors have enjoyed the chair. It's been moved around a lot. It is a well traveled piece of furniture.
Objects can trigger us to remember, and remembering forms the basis of our life stories.
This rocking chair has history. It holds stories of pain, of joy, of relaxing with good books, meditating to the gentle rocking motion of a comfortable old chair ... it's been to many places; front porches in Florida, living rooms in Seattle, Washington and Auckland, New Zealand, and now it is in my place, by the window, still doing its rocking thing.
It's just a chair, made of wood, solid. It cannot speak.
I can, so I tell its stories.
I was 7 years old and my sister was 10 when my family immigrated to New Zealand from the USA. We arrived in Auckland on a P & O ocean liner called the SS Orcades which deposited us at the bottom of Auckland's Queen Street on a wintry, cold, August Sunday.
The first big thing my parents did was rent a car and drive all over New Zealand looking at places to settle. My sister and I spent long hours in the back of a Morris 1100 (which was, in the 1960s, a very new and popular imported motor vehicle) getting jostled about, mostly bored out of our brains, while Mum fed us honey sandwiches and warm Fanta or Coke (drinks were not often kept in fridges then - they were just on the shelf at the shop).
The combination of so much sugar and our boredom inspired my sister and I to come up with a story or a song, each day, which we then either sang or narrated to each other in our hotel room that night.
My sister was already tuned in to what made a good story.
"You need a good idea to make a great story," she said to me, "that means, you have something really horrible happen at the beginning so people want to read it, have a middle where there's plenty of action, and an end where lots of people die but some don't."
She had written up a list of genres which began with HORROR (her favourite), then went on to ANIMAL, WILD WEST, SUSPENSE, ending with LOVE. Each morning in the car we had to select a genre for our story that day. We always considered the last one too 'soppy' to write about.
Her strongest idea ever was the Giant Kiwi. Driving through the tall, dark forests of the South Island and the bush of the North inspired her to spin nightly tales of the giant kiwis, 20 feet tall, who lived in the dense and remote parts of the country where no one had ever been, and if you were mad enough to go there, you would be eaten, or seriously damaged, by the giant kiwis.
Every evening as we sat in our hotel room, she would tell me the latest horror about The Giant Kiwi. Needless to say, at the age of 7, highly impressionable, in a strange, new country with more trees than I had ever seen in my young life, venturing about in a small car with parents who really didn't know where they were going, and being fed honey sandwiches, day after day, I was beside myself with delicious terror at the thought of these vicious kiwi creatures roaming about in the darkness of the woods. We had, of course, seen photos of the small, innocent, flightless birds but for me, it wasn't hard to imagine these little kiwis transforming into massive scary things with long pecking beaks and ripping claws.
My sister got a lot of mileage out of the Giant Kiwis. She made it into a series which continued, night after night, with escalating horror and suspense until Mum told her to stop it because I couldn't get to sleep and if I did, I'd wake up screaming and rouse the whole family.
That's when we turned to the less frightening, but no less compelling, Western genre.
So the lesson here is: step one to a great story is a strong, interesting idea.
Sorry. The Giant Kiwi is already taken.
Do you remember a time when you thought you had magical super powers?
Maybe you felt this way when you were little - or perhaps these days, even as a grown up person, you wish you had them ..
I was in the company of a delightful young fellow the other day who was telling me how he could make my cat Betsy magically disappear from the couch and reappear out in the garden under the lemon tree.
"How do you make that happen?" I asked to which he replied with a flourish, "I BELIEVE!"
I remember when I was little I used to want to make my sister disappear and I also believed I had powers of levitation in which I could raise myself from the ground and hover. I also thought I had x-ray vision and other super powers as per Superman etc.
It's nice sometimes to write about our magical powers. You may have to return to childhood to those wondrous days of imagination when anything was possible and we didn't know the boundaries of 'not enough money' or 'too little time' or 'that's just downright ridiculous!' You may wish you had magical powers now ... to procure a Lotto win, to make the garden grow bounteously, to have more days of life ..
Whatever it may be, sit down and write for ten minutes without thinking too hard about it - take a leap back to childhood or into a flight of fancy, have some fun - then reward yourself with a nice cup of tea.
I had a writing mentor when I was younger, Mrs. M. She used to say, "Don't just write about the nice stuff; take on the yukky bits too."
We all have times in our lives when we've done something we're not proud of.
Perhaps we've really hurt another person through our actions or words.
Maybe we broke Aunt May's precious china poodle, worth a million dollars, when we were staying over one weekend, tried to glue it back together, failed, stuck it in the garbage and never fessed up.
And then there are those deep secrets we have that we hold close, never wanting them to see the light of day. It would be too humiliating, too devastating, to write about them, just too difficult. We might hurt someone else, too, if we let them out of their box.
Natalie Goldberg offers some good advice in her book Old Friend From Far Away:
Go for the jugular, for what makes you nervous. Otherwise, you will always be writing around your secrets, like the elephant no one notices in the living room. It's that large animal that makes your living room unique and interesting.
When we write about those things that are personally difficult, Natalie goes on to say that we're actually building up a tolerance for what we cannot bear. If you start out by writing down frightening things and then tearing up the paper, that's OK. Keep going and keep tearing it up if you want to until you arrive at a point where Natalie says 'chew it up and swallow.' It's good practice.
The more you challenge yourself to 'go for the jugular' in your writing, the more willing - and able - you will be to go to those dark, secret places, and the richer your writing will become.
Here's an exercise suggested by our Natalie: Make a list of the things you should not write about - then systematically go down the list, take ten minutes on each one, and 'let it rip.'
Sometimes we want to write about people we have lost who were close to us.
Author Jonas Hassen Khemiri says in a recent interview with The New Yorker: "What kind of memories do we cling on to? ... Whenever I have lost someone, my first impulse has been to try to collect all my memories of that person and write them down. Almost as if in a naïve attempt to render them immortal."
Khemiri's words make me think of the need we have to remember that person in our words, the feverish impulse we experience to write everything down, to capture the person and keep them alive in our memories.
I have been working on a book about my Mom who passed away in 2010. I have to say that the words have not come in an impulsive rush. They have been slow to arrive, and it is not easy writing, but it is something I need to do.
The last thing I bought Mom before she passed away was a bottle of L'air de Temps fragrance. It was a strange request from her, as she'd always been a Chanel No. 5 kind of gal. I sometimes think it was the fancy bottle that had attracted her in the past as I know she had worn this fragrance from time to time.
My mother had always stressed the importance of perfume. "I'd spend my last dime on a bottle of good perfume," she'd say, "so that I could at least smell expensive."
We were clearing her room at the hospital after she had passed away and I saw the L'air du Temps on the table. I took it home with me and I still have it. The perfume is rather stale now, but it does still have that delightful, flowery lightness that uplifted my Mom and made her feel good. Whenever I take off the top and smell it, I think of her.
There are so many ways we can remember people in our writing - we can describe them, how they looked, what they said and believed; or, like magpies, we can collect things, objects that when seen, can evoke memories of the person to whom they belonged.