This blog post will not be written with any kind of skill or coherence. Just getting that out there before you actually decide to commit five minutes of your life to reading it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
So, a few things, in no particular order.
First, I SUBMITTED MY THIRD BOOK TO MY PUBLISHER. This is a pretty major event for me, because I’ve really been struggling to write for the past seven months. And, indeed, was struggling as recently as last week. But last weekend, I was given the gift of just over 24 hours without children – the first night I’ve spent alone in more than 4 years – and managed to lock up the inner critic for long enough to get the book finished. I’m still more than 50% sure my editor will come back to me and say what the heck is this load of old rubbish, but to be honest, completing the thing at all feels like a huge achievement.
Second, my second book is out in paperback in a week’s time. I’ve arranged precisely nothing in the way of promotion. However, I will be doing a book signing in Waterstones Milton Keynes on 13 August, if you happen to be in the area.
Third, I’ll be spending far less time on social media for a while. I will update my Facebook author page occasionally if I have anything relevant to share, but my Twitter will remain on hiatus and my Facebook account will remain deactivated. (To be honest, I don’t think anyone’s actually noticed the deactivation of my Facebook account, so that shows how much of an impact I was having on people’s lives. Ha.)
In brief, the retreat from social media is for my own mental health. The internet can be great for showing people they’re not alone. It can also be the loneliest place in the world. And when you’re already feeling like a talentless loser, there’s so much on Twitter and Facebook just waiting to confirm that for you. It gets to the point where everything, no matter how small, feeds into your own insecurity and self-doubt. It’s so easy to compare yourself negatively to other people. To take things personally that weren’t meant personally. And when you add that to all the anger and hate and political arguments that devolve into insults … I guess it can be overwhelming. Certainly I was finding it a drain on my energy. I’ve only been gone a week, and I already feel a lot better just from detaching for a bit.
So, yeah. That’s me. Since I won’t be sharing this on Twitter or Facebook, other than my author page, I don’t suppose anyone will actually read it. But, you know, just in case ;-)
Writer’s block is a goddamn thing.
I never used to think it was. I always thought it was a bit of a silly concept, really. You can’t think what to write? Just write something else! If you’re struggling to complete a scene/chapter/book, simply switch to writing a different scene/chapter/book and all your problems will be solved. It doesn’t matter what you write, after all, as long as you’re writing.
That’s probably reasonable advice for a normal case of being stuck, but true writer’s block is different. Or at least, the thing that I’m now calling writer’s block – having experienced it, and still experiencing it right now – is different from any other kind of writing struggle I’ve had before.
I’ve posted a few times recently about the difficulty I’m experiencing with my third Darkhaven novel, and people have come back with a ton of advice. Set a certain amount of time aside for writing each day – it doesn’t matter if you only write a sentence during that time, as long as you’re doing it. Write something else, something fun instead of deadline-driven. Give yourself a break – walk away, do other things, come back to it when you’re feeling refreshed. I love all my writer friends, and I really, really appreciate the time they’ve taken to support me. But the thing is, I’m on a deadline.
Now, I usually love deadlines. They’re the main impetus I have to get anything done. In the past, writing without a deadline has been equivalent to never finishing, because I have no reason to draw a line under what I’ve done and say That’s good enough. So I just tinker endlessly. But with this particular deadline … well, I’ve already pushed it back once, and that’s once too many. I meet deadlines. I pride myself on meeting deadlines. I don’t want to feel like I’m failing as a deadline-meeter as well as a writer.
At this point, you may be detecting a certain level of obsessiveness. Everyone misses deadlines sometimes. It happens. Just ask for another extension. But my problem with that is that I’m afraid it will push me deeper into the cycle of I can’t do this. I’m already pretty deep in it. I need it to crack open and release me, not sink its teeth in further. Having more time would stretch the problem into the future, making it more daunting, and sending my brain more tightly into its relentless spiral of self-doubt.
So as a result, I don’t have time to take a break or write something different. And while setting aside a certain amount of time for writing every day would be lovely, it’s not going to happen. I get time when I get time. Sometimes my children are ill. Sometimes my husband needs help with something. Sometimes there’s another job to do. And since I get a maximum of two hours a day for everything that’s not kids or work, there’s no way I can consistently spend those two hours on writing.
(And yes, I could sleep less. But I have a full-time job, and I don’t consider it ethical to function at less than my full capability at work because I’ve deliberately cut my sleep short in order to write. I know how much sleep I need to do a good job. With children around, I don’t always get it as it is. I certainly can’t justify getting less than what I do get.)
But all of this is missing the point, really. Because the thing about writer’s block is that it stops me from writing anything at all. (Fiction, anyway – I seem to be perfectly capable of writing reviews and opinion pieces and articles about goddamn writer’s block.) No matter whether the period of time I have to write in is big or small, no matter what I try to write, there’s a little voice that tells me I’m useless. And not only that – there is what almost seems to be a literal block in my brain, preventing me from being able to think about what I’m working on. I try and think about it, and my brain throws up distractions – or, failing that, it just goes completely blank. And yet when I’m not writing, that exact same brain nags me constantly about it: you should be writing. You’re going to miss your deadline. You’re going to fail. So even the option of relaxing and doing something else is closed to me, because I can’t relax. Ever. Ever.
I can imagine some of the more seasoned writers among you nodding wisely and saying It sounds as though your heart isn’t really in this book. You don’t love it enough. Maybe your subconscious knows there’s a plot hole, maybe you’ve made a narrative or stylistic choice somewhere that you don’t like, maybe you’re simply fed up with the characters. But honestly? I’m pretty sure that none of that is true. I like this book. I think it could be the best one yet. I just don’t know how to get it out of me.
My fingers have moved faster over the keys, typing this article, than they have done for months writing the thing I want and need to write. That’s pretty sad.
The end of the year is upon us, and so it's time for the obligatory navel-gazing. This time, it comes with something of an announcement.
Partner: What are you doing?
Partner: No, you're not. I've been watching you for the past five minutes and you're just sitting there staring into space.
Me: Staring into space is part of writing.
Partner: Uh-huh. And before that, when you frowned at the screen, typed in a single word, frowned some more, then sighed heavily and deleted it again - that's part of writing too, is it?
Partner: And those times when you swear and slam the lid of your laptop shut, before stomping off to the kitchen to eat chocolate - they're also part of writing?
Me (defensively): Yes.
Partner: I see.
(He sits back in his chair and closes his eyes. Ten minutes pass in silence.)
Me: What are you doing?
Partner (without opening his eyes): Unloading the dishwasher.
Casual acquaintance: So, I gather you've written a book.
Me (warily): Yes.
Casual acquaintance: I've often thought I'd like to write a book.
Casual acquaintance: Yeah. I mean, how hard can it be? People write books all the time.
Me: Well, yes, but -
Casual acquaintance: It must be nice, getting paid for just sitting there scribbling all day. Like getting paid to daydream.
Me: Well, it's not exactly -
Casual acquaintance: Have you signed up with a publisher yet?
Me: That's not how it -
Casual acquaintance: I'd go for Penguin, myself. I reckon my name would look good on one of those classic book cover mug things. So what's your book about?
Me: Um, it's a fantasy, and -
Casual acquaintance: Like Harry Potter?
Me: No, not really.
Casual acquaintance: Oh. To be honest, I don't read much fantasy. I don't read much fiction, actually. I prefer celebrity biographies, stuff like that. I got Peter Andre's autograph the other day.
Casual acquaintance: Still, not reading other people's fiction means I won't be influenced when I come to write my own, right?
Me: Well -
Casual acquaintance: Like I said, how hard can it be?
Me (under my breath): You just wait.*
Me: This scene we wrote yesterday is actually pretty good.
Myself: Er, no, it's not. It's terrible.
Me: But look how witty the dialogue is! How cleverly we built the suspense! How successfully we revealed character through action!
Myself: It's the worst excuse for a piece of writing I've ever read. It sucks in every conceivable way. Based on this heap of garbage, we don't deserve to call ourselves a writer; in fact, I think we should give up and do something else with our lives.**
Me: Yeah, you're right. I don't know what I was thinking.
Myself: Let's go and eat chocolate.
(The following day ...)
Me: I know we said we were going to give up writing, but I just can't help myself.
Myself: I know. Me neither.
Me: So what are we going to do with this scene? Scrap it and start again?
(We read it through.)
Myself: Actually ... it's pretty good.
(Repeat ad infinitum.)
* The sad thing is, this woman probably will end up getting a multi-book deal and a six-figure advance. C'est la vie.
** Like play Gollum in the LOTR movies.
Blog on through
or, How to write a blog post when you're completely lacking inspiration, in 15 easy steps.
1. Switch on your computer. This is a pretty fundamental first step; if you can't summon the energy even to do that, I'm afraid there's no hope for you.
2. Check your emails. Read them all thoroughly, even the one informing you that you've won a million pounds in a competition you never entered, run by a company you've never heard of.* Refresh your inbox. Repeat until you're sure no new mail is going to come through.
3. Log in to all your social networking sites. 'Like' at least three photos of cats being mildly amusing. Spend half an hour composing a tweet that perfectly reflects your brilliance.
4. You must be hungry by now. Go and get a snack.
5. Return to your computer and check your emails again.
6. Log in to your blogging site, create a new post and stare at the blank page.
7. Find someone to distract you. A small child is your best bet, because they'll distract you whether you want them to or not. Other possibilities include a partner, a relative, a friend or, at a pinch, a door-to-door salesman.
8. Return to your computer and check your emails. Follow a link to someone else's blog. Note that this person blogs every day on a range of varied and interesting topics. With colour illustrations.
9. Make yourself a consoling cup of tea. Whilst drinking it, remind yourself that only three people and a dog read your blog anyway, so it's not as if you're under the same pressure as Ms Ten Thousand Subscribers.
10. Pause for a brief daydream about when you are a famous author with a hundred thousand subscribers and can laugh in the face of colour illustrations.
11. Return to your computer. Do not check your emails. Open your current work-in-progress and start tinkering with Chapter 7.
12. An hour or so later, remember you are meant to be blogging. Also realise that it's dark and you have to get up for work tomorrow.
13. Mix yourself a reviving gin and tonic.
14. Go back to your empty blog post and dash off a few hundred words about what you've been doing all day. Post it under the guise of being helpful to your fellow writers.
15. Try not to repeat the process too frequently, or your readers may notice.**
* To claim your prize, click on this link and answer a few simple questions about yourself and your bank account ...
** The dog will, at any rate. He has a suspicious mind.
What I did on my holidays
'Tis the first Sunday in August, and thus my self-imposed banishment has come to an end. As is customary for a person in exile, I've spent much of it thinking: about writing, about parenthood, about life. And as is customary for me, the vast majority of that thinking has ended up with me doubting my own decisions.
I'm good at that.
Call it the natural self-analysis of anyone who is forced to leave their homeland (er, this website) for a prolonged period of time (er, three weeks), but since I left, I've been questioning all sorts of things. Was I right to return to work five days a week and leave Baby Smith with someone who isn't his mother (even if, admittedly, it's his father)? Can I be a good parent and a good wife and still be a good writer, or any sort of writer at all? Is it really worth dedicating my time to blogging and interviewing when there are so many other things clamouring for my attention?
What proportion of my life do I have a right to keep for me, and what proportion do I have a responsibility to give to others?
I've visited forums on parenting sites where some of the mums are of the opinion that being a mother requires dedicating 100% of your life to your children. By that reckoning, I'm a pretty terrible one. I work, which to a certain subset of the population automatically disqualifies me from good motherhood (why have kids if you're just going to leave them with someone else?). And when I'm home, I often spend Baby Smith's naptimes and the evenings after he goes to sleep on my computer, which means certain chores get neglected to the point of, well, not being done at all. I annoy my husband, I know I do. And sometimes I annoy myself. Why can't I just focus on making a home for my family instead of indulging in what is essentially a time-consuming hobby?
The thing is, I never intended to be a working mum. Well before I had Baby Smith, I was of the opinion that I wanted my children to be looked after by one of their parents. And I always assumed that parent would be me. Yet when it came to it, it made more financial sense for me to be the one who worked full time. I have a steady job; my husband works on a freelance basis, which you'll know if you've ever done it is notorious for its unpredictability. With a bigger house to pay for and a baby to look after, we couldn't afford unpredictable. And so he got the most challenging and most important role - raising our offspring - while I went back to the office. I was torn about it, but now, if I'm honest, I'm relieved. I'm well aware that I got the lighter load.* Sure, some days are frustrating or confusing or, you know, work, but on the whole it's good to be using my brain for what it's been trained to do. I miss Baby Smith, but at the same time ... I'm glad I don't have to spend 24/7 with him.
Bad Parent Test #1: check.
And so to the writing. I'm already out of the house five days a week while someone else brings up my baby. What possible right can I have to extra time for myself? Isn't the fact that I work full time enough? Am I not, in fact, being incredibly selfish in snatching every available hour for something that isn't for my husband or my baby or us as a family, but for me?
I could argue that my job isn't for me at all - if money was no object, I'd happily give up my existing career so that Mr Smith and I could take turns raising the baby and pursuing our dreams (and, you know, maybe going on an actual date once in a while). But I don't think that's really the point. What it comes down to is the fact that I think it's more important to write than it is to clean the bathroom. And no matter how hard I try to tell myself that I should bake and sew and polish and sweep and weed, as soon as a little fragment of free time comes along, I'm right back on my computer again.
Bad Parent Test #2: check.
Yet I have a justification for all this, though perhaps not one you will agree with. It isn't the time-honoured cry of the breadwinner throughout the centuries, I work hard so I deserve a break (we've already established that's a premise built on very shaky ground). It isn't I'm doing this for my family, because one day I'll be a bestselling author earning millions of pounds; I know full well I'm doing it for me (and how remote a likelihood it is that I'll ever earn that much by writing). No, it's simply this: it makes me happy.
Yes, I know that makes me sound like the most stupid and self-absorbed person in history, but hear me out. (We're nearly at the end, I promise.)
I may pass my own bad parent tests, but I love my son. He's happy, he's healthy, he's clever and funny and affectionate. He doesn't need anything he doesn't get, physically or emotionally. And without having the balance of my other passions in my life - without writing and reading and drawing - I would lose myself. I would become less of a person. Because I firmly believe, and I have always believed, that although being a mother is a wonderful and important thing, it can't be all there is. Same with being a wife. When all the things we are to other people are stripped away, there has to be something left. Otherwise, what is it we bring the people we love? We need the ability to be happy independently of them, or we are doing no more and no less than putting the burden of responsibility for our happiness on their shoulders. And without passions of our own, how can we teach our children to find theirs?
The balance between family and self is a difficult one to get right. I still doubt my decisions. I still beat myself up over it all. But in the end, I came back from exile. Make of that what you will.
* I really mean that. Apart from maybe brain surgeon or firefighter, no job is quite as difficult or comes with quite as heavy a burden of responsibility as bringing up a child. And at least if you're a brain surgeon or a firefighter, you're not doing your job every minute of every day for eighteen-plus years. To all you men (and women) out there who come home to your childcaring partners and moan about the stress of your jobs and expect a sparkling clean house and dinner on the table, I say: get over yourselves. Seriously.
Postcard from a barren island
Dear friends/interweb acquaintances/people who've just stumbled across this blog for the first time and are wondering what the hell is going on:
So, recently Baby Smith decided that sleep was his Least Favourite Thing in the World Ever. This may be because there's been an unusual amount of sunshine for a British summer (i.e. some) and so the house keeps getting up to temperatures more commonly seen in the cooking instructions on a pack of sausages. It may be because I'm now back at work five days a week and he's decided that if he can't see me in the daytime, he's damn well going to see me at night. Or it may just be because he's a baby, and mixing things up to keep the parents on their toes is what babies do (after all, life would be no fun if it was predictable, right?).
Whatever the reason, the net result is the same: I've been spending my nights up and down like a deranged yo-yo, and my days trying to do a good job even though my eyeballs are covered in sand and the only recognisable thought in my head is a single giant yawn. Any other commitments have been left by the wayside in a jumbled heap marked 'to be picked up later'. Which is why, dear friends, I am writing to you from the shade of a palm tree* on one of my very own barren islands.
For the next couple of weeks, I'm going to be exiled here while my boring real-life alter ego gets on with things. I know it will be a terrible blow to you all not to have the twice-weekly joy of my presence (ha), but if it's any consolation, I'll be back in August. In the meantime, I leave you with this picture of the view from my palm tree. Bet you wish you were here ...
* OK, it's not technically barren. What's the point of being the Ultimate and Supreme Ruler of the Barren Islands if I can't bend the rules a little on my own behalf?
It's no secret that I love The Big Bang Theory, even though in reality it has as much to do with science as Friends had to do with ... well, science. But there's one aspect of the show that drives me quietly insane, and that's the dynamic between Leonard and Penny.
It's become a well-used trope: Beauty and the Geek. It's the same dynamic that linked Ross and Rachel in Friends. And it's wrong, all wrong.
We want these couples to get together. We root for them. The girl is presented as being out of the guy's league, and so we cheer when he finally gets her. But why? Why do we accept the fact that she's out of his league and not the other way around? Why do looks trump intelligence? And why, oh why, do we still believe that a relationship in which both parties are convinced that one of them is way cooler (and, in fact, hotter) than the other can possibly be healthy in the long term?
It's patronising and stereotypical to portray men as being solely interested in looks. Yet as far as I can see, that's the main thing that attracts Leonard to Penny or Ross to Rachel. Instead of going for the girl they'd actually be able to have an interesting conversation with at dinner, these guys are choosing to obsess over the dumb blonde.* They're perpetuating a kind of eighteenth-century mindset that tells us men don't need their women to offer them lively discussion or a sharing of intellectual ideas, because they can always go down to their club and seek out rational company in the form of another man. Both Leonard and Ross are pursuing an adult relationship based on nothing more than an adolescent-level crush. And we're meant to feel as if they've achieved something when they finally snag the cheerleader.
Of course, a good old double standard is in operation here. For instance, there's a vague sense in Big Bang that Bernadette has married beneath her. She earns a lot more money than Howard; she wears the trousers in the relationship. Yet there's no such feeling about the Leonard/Penny pairing, even though Leonard is equally more successful than Penny. Why is this? Why are we invited to laugh at a couple who are intellectual equals and where the woman just happens to be the high flyer**, while there's no problem with a couple in the more traditional (read: stereotypical) 'man as breadwinner' configuration who have nothing at all in common except that she's hot and he likes hot girls? Is it the lingering and unpleasant assumption that a man who contributes less financially than his partner is somehow risible? Or is it the equally pernicious assumption that it doesn't matter what else a woman brings to a relationship, as long as she's attractive? If Leonard and Penny were Leonie and Peter, would we still be asked to admire Leonie's luck in finally convincing pretty-but-dumb Peter to date her? I suspect not. Women who go after inferiors in intellect/superiors in looks are mocked. Men who do the same are applauded.
So what message does this send to the geeky, smart, fascinated-with-science young women out there? That it doesn't matter how switched-on and sparky and passionate about academia they are. The guys with whom they might make an equal connection are more concerned with pursuing the hot girls who think learning is boring and intellectual curiosity is for losers. Forget being able to hold an interesting conversation, girls. If you want the boys to like you, you'd better learn to apply your makeup right.
As I said, I love Big Bang. I love the characters, and I believe it means well as a show about geeks, for geeks – even if it missteps sometimes. But I really wish we could rid ourselves, once and for all, of the idea that Geek is bad and Beauty is good. That no matter how intelligent and interesting a man is, he's still somehow inferior to a pretty woman – and that the same man won't care about a woman's brain, only about her appearance. I would have thought, in the 21st century, we'd be beyond that by now.
* I'm not actually saying that either Penny or Rachel is stupid, by the way. Just that both Leonard and Ross are presented to us as being interested in the girls primarily because of their appearance, and despite the fact that they don't have a great deal in common.
** Yes, I know Howard's an astronaut. Don't take it so literally.
Balloons, cake and spilled wine
Baby Smith just had his first ever birthday party. Only a family affair, but it took a surprising amount of preparation. We cooked. We cleaned. We went to three different supermarkets in search of the perfect menu. I baked a cake for the first time in, well, ever. I even made a pass the parcel. And the silly thing about all that is, he isn't going to remember any of it. The person who all that effort was aimed at is the one person who won't appreciate it. In that respect, it was a bit like a funeral.
Yes, I did just compare a child's birthday party to a funeral. But bear with me.
Many key events in life are for pretty much everyone's benefit except the person whose name is actually on the programme, as it were. Funerals are the obvious one: even if you believe in an afterlife and think the departed is watching events unfold from a cloud somewhere, showing them their own funeral is just adding insult to injury. Not only are they dead, but they can now see just how miserable everyone is as a result. (Or, worse, how happy ...) With my cynical hat on, I could say weddings aren't much of an improvement; after all, there must be a better way for a couple to celebrate the start of their new life together than by running up several thousand pounds' worth of debt on overpriced food and alcohol for a hundred distant relations and casual acquaintances.* And even birthdays, I have always found to be much more for other people's benefit than my own – because when it's my birthday, I have to be the host, and that means running around with plates of nachos and olives on sticks while everyone else talks about the economy and spills wine on my carpet.
At this point, based on the brilliance of my previous blog posts**, you're probably expecting me to pull some amazingly insightful writing comparison out of the bag. And that, dear friends, is why writing is like a funeral: it's not about you, the author/dead person, but about your readers/mourners ... But I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint you, mostly because I'm still exhausted from helping Baby Smith unwrap a billion presents. So instead, I'll just say this.
Yes, our birthdays tend to be all about keeping other people happy.
Yes, our weddings basically consist of our guests enjoying free food and drink while we fret about the bill.
Yes, our funerals will be solely for the benefit of the loved ones we leave behind.
But that's OK. In a world where everything increasingly seems to be all about the individual; where each of us is concerned with our own ambitions and our own frustrations, our personal space and our 'me time'; where personality is much more prized than community ... maybe it's nice that many of our biggest social occasions turn it all on its head. And, after all, for every time we're called upon to play the host, there'll be many more times we get to spill wine on someone else's carpet.
As for Baby Smith, he seemed to enjoy himself. And he would have enjoyed himself just as much with no cake and no presents, only the family who'd come to see him. Perhaps, after all, that's the point of this post.
* Before you pick me up on this one, yes, I know not all weddings are like that. Sometimes the couple actually know all their guests.
** You can stop laughing now.
Learning to fall
I'm up to my eyeballs in various kinds of busyness at the moment, so let's keep this short.
Last month, Baby Smith had his first fall. I'd sat him on my bed to get ready for his nap and had just turned away to draw the curtains when I heard the most spine-chilling sound imaginable: the thud of a small body hitting the carpet. I spun back round and there he was. Face-down on the floor. He'd obviously tried to crawl to the edge of the bed and peer over, with inevitable and disastrous results.
My immediate response was, naturally, ohmygodohmygodohmygodhe'sdeadhe'sdeadhe'sdead. But once I'd finished panicking, berating myself as the worst parent in existence, checking him all over in search of the tiniest scratch, comforting the tears I'd called up with my alarm, and berating myself some more — once I'd ascertained that he hadn't damaged so much as a hair follicle — I started thinking about why he was OK. (This was about a week later, when I'd stopped having flashbacks and was able to remember the incident calmly instead of bouncing off a flashing neon wall of terror in my brain marked The Time I Nearly Killed My Child.) And it occurred to me that babies can fall without getting hurt because they're not frightened. They don't tense up. They don't go into it expecting pain. They just fall.
Over time, children learn what to expect from a fall, and they know it isn't very nice. So they begin to try and prevent it from happening, by flinging out a hand to catch themselves or by avoiding accident-prone situations. In short, they learn fear. And of course when they do fall, it hurts more — because they're expecting it, because they try and save themselves from it, because knowing the risks of what you're doing always makes you more tentative and therefore less wholehearted.
The thing is, life is all about falling. Unless you're that one in a billion who will never ever experience setback or rejection or failure, life is really just a series of falls. Unfortunately, most of us get worse and worse at falling as we get older. We stop taking risks. We take our failures to heart. Each one of those falls makes it that little bit harder to get up again.
Of course we shouldn't be reckless. I'm not advocating that you jump without even checking to see how high the drop is. But if you're aiming for something you really want, you could do a lot worse than fall like a baby would: without any expectation of pain. And when the pain does hit you? Let it happen. Learn from it. But never let it make you afraid to try again.