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What are you looking for?

And really, that is the question to ask yourself when you are researching your way through a day, putting random combinations of words into the great roulette wheel of Google, to see where you land – even if you have no idea what the answer is.  Today, my desk is covered with maps of Berlin, a variety of German history books, various and sundry notebooks, and a dirty mug of tea.  But my Google cookies betray my online interests, from the history of Germany trains to the construction of railways in German colonies, to electrotherapy and mass nervousness in pre WWI Berlin.  Honestly.  What do I hope to stitch out of all of that?

A book, of course.  In this run-up to the rewrite of my second novel, I am looking for some more information.  There are things that didn’t get sketched out or made clear in the first draft.  The first draft, for me, is always very present-tense-y, it’s the now of the novel and not a lot of before.  In case the characters want to tell me something about themselves before I have to go and find it.  As the last rewrite of the first novel was spent in addressing some “befores” this seems a sensible approach this time round.  And all the digging around is leading me to think about the characters I have in new and surprising ways – which is, precisely, the point of research.  For me, mind.  It isn’t to show off facts and figures – thank goodness, for I can never read the notes I take.  I don’t even know if it’s to add local colour, because those kinds of details always feel like tick boxes for me, particularly in Germany.  I think the research is to inform why characters do what they do or did what they did, specifically.  It is a way to set them not only into a place but into their time on their timeline, to make them a part of it in a way that suits them, and to create a web of characters around them for them to exist with or push against.  All this stumbling around has made it a scrappy kind of day, but I can feel that I am filling in the black and white outlines I made in the first draft; I am putting flesh onto bones.  I am trusting that this endless spinning will lead to some kind of payoff.

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Morning Practice

What’s your morning practice?  If you’re like me, it involves drinking buckets of tea and stumbling around, tripping over newspapers and an old cat.  On retreat, it is easy to spring from a bed and vault into a yurt for yoga.  At home, there is all this – well – home to deal with.  How can you keep that retreat feeling going with a sink full of dishes and an empty fridge?

My mornings begin with Morning Pages, an old idea that I first came across in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, though it was probably Julia Cameron who coined the phrase in her iconic The Artist’s Way.  Natalie talks about timed exercises and writing to fill that time until the bell rings.  This is, perhaps, an offshoot of how she sees her meditation practice.  For her, meditation and free writing go hand-in-hand.  Julia prefers to fill pages rather than an amount of time.  As a writer, this works for me, too.  What, after all, are we trying to do other than fill pages?  I have been filling lined notebooks for much more than a decade.  On those lines, I have celebrated, whined, mourned and worked through things.  I have also found the first nuggets of ideas emerging, from a series of unconnected and random thoughts while in “write dump” mode.  That is the big idea behind Morning Pages or any kind of free writing.  Don’t think.  Don’t analyse.  Don’t try to connect thoughts or ideas.  Just write.

But that’s just how I use it.  There aren’t any rules.  Does it have to be morning?  No, especially if mornings aren’t your friends.  Does it have to be pages?  No.  And thank goodness for that.  My many years of filling notebooks are unreadable, unintelligible, indecipherable.  Like so many chickens having a scratch.  But the good people at 750words have come to my rescue, creating an online place for morning pages, for fingers more accustomed to keys now than pens.  And what’s really fun about 750words is that you can use meta tags on your writing, to find things later and refer back to them, and that the site reflects back your keywords after your writing, giving you a glimpse into your preoccupations and your states of mind, as well as placing them in context with writers around the world, as in the picture above, which appeals to my Inner Geek.  If you’ve tried morning paper pages and found them not to your liking, give online a try.  Couldn’t hurt, anyway.  You only have to try and see what works for you.  And then to practice and practice and practice.

It is a practice, like yoga or meditation.  It is like a full-body stretch for the mind.  It is a wake-up call or a place of stillness.  It is a place for lists and petty fears.  It is a place to write mindful detail of what is around you, what happened yesterday, what you want to happen today.  For me, it is a way to tame my monkey mind.  After morning pages, the brain says “OK, you’ve heard me, I’ll get out of your way and let you write.”  And sometimes, it actually does.

What is your morning practice?  What rituals or states of mind leave you ready to write?

A Retreat of One’s Own

What are the places that make your heart lift?  What do they look like?  What do they require, if one is to write?  It was Virginia Woolf, of course, who said that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”  On retreat, you might not be guaranteed a room all to yourself (and you will most certainly require money, for these things must be paid for) but the best places for retreat offer themselves up to you, allow you to find your “room of your own”, a place you can return to, to puzzle out your words.

For me, it must have a view.  How about this one?  It should not have a mirror that you have to face while writing.  I have assaulted many a hotel room mirror with a towel, lest I catch myself gurning mid-sentence.  It should have a table, or at least a wonderful chair with arms wide enough to support a laptop on crossed legs.  It might have books and candles and, if you are lucky, a place to build a fire.

My new favourite place for a writing retreat is Tilton House, in the South Downs, nestled in Bloomsbury-on-Sussex.  (It is the former Georgian country house of economist Maynard Keynes and his Russian ballerina wife, who was not taken into the chilly bosom of Virginia’s sister’s circle.)  Keynes said of Tilton House, “There is no better air than here for work.”  Who will disagree with him?  Not I.

This is a picture of Keynes’ study, now the library, the room I found to work in, though I did have to occasionally share it, and gladly, with other writers who were collected together by New Writing South to work with Vanessa Gebbie.  You cannot see the walls of books or the wood stove fire that burst into triumphant life an hour and a half after building it and giving up.  Over 6 short workshops, guided visualisations, walks and suppers, we were all encouraged to look at our work in new ways and to challenge the assumptions we had made about our work thus far.  It was a weekend of laughter, insight, and tremendous vegan fare.

I was lucky enough to have a room of my own, but I did not write at the adorable desk.  I did write, huddled under the covers, listening to Radio 4 and pheasants.  But most often, I padded down, back to the library.  Nearer the kettle, to be sure – another retreat necessity – but probably also to be nearer the glow of others’ writing, the cats and dog, the warmth of a circle of people with shared interests and desires.  If the Bloomsbury set lived together to share their interests in beauty, truth, and friendship, so do writers seek out writers for conversation, confirmation, affinity.

Now, back in my own room, I am struck by what I have.  I have a view out of three small windows, to the house and to the neighbour’s allotment-style garden and a sky broken only by an ash tree.  I have a broad desk and walls of books.  I have candles and if I do not have a fire, I do have a Calor gas heater, which I have just rolled, grunting, out of the way so that I can squeeze in space for a yoga mat, inspired by Tilton House’s heart-lifting yurt to make a greater commitment to the practice and shirk yoga no more.  If the vegan fare will not continue, I have at least committed to having lunch.  I tend to write until I fall over, but I can now see the value of eating midday.

Most of all, I have got my groove back.  I have been labouring the last few weeks to empty the last book from my head and work space, while others read it and decide what they will make of it.  I have cleaned my desk, but still I have not written.  I was hoping the retreat would allow me to transition to the second book that is ready to be rewritten, and find I am now ready to rewrite it.  If you find yourself stuck, or in need of a heart lift, find a place where you can retreat, whether it’s Anam Cara, Arvon, Yaddo, Tilton House – or even if it is just in your own room and the circle of writers you find is on Twitter.  But if you have that bit of money, it is a wonderful investment in yourself and your work.  My retreat was paid for with winnings from the recent Mslexia contest, and I am very grateful to it, and that I didn’t have to spend that money on groceries – which are also very essential for writing.  Speaking of which, I’m off for a digestive.  Even though it’s lunch time.

The Power of Blurbs

Michel Faber made me do it. Such is the power of blurbs.

The cover of Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Visitation” says, courtesy of Mr. Faber: “Extraordinarily strong… Erpenbeck is one of the finest, most exciting authors alive.”  He stops just short of an exclamation mark.  So far, so blurby.  But it wasn’t the blurb that caught my attention, it was his spiky review in the Guardian.  His opening made me sit up: “At its worst, the British literary scene behaves like a community of nerdy parochialists who imagine themselves to be cosmopolitans, fretting about whether there can be any great novels any more now that Amis is past it and Updike has died. The ongoing story of literature in foreign languages is barely noticed, a background pixel in the all-important anglophone display.”  He derides the appearance of a book that can only be Freedom, and wonders why the British “struggle” to understand, say, middle class American nuance, but seem to be disinterested in any works in translation – and particularly German ones.

As someone actively looking for German work in translation, I was grateful to Faber for pointing the book out to me.  As I had never seen it in a bookshop – and have yet to see it – I ordered in on line and was delighted that, when it arrived, slim in its cardboard sleeve, it was only 150 pages.  I do like a short book, especially when it is tackling 24,000 years of history on one piece of land.  (This, in and of itself is not remarkable. James Michner made it his speciality, and if there is a better history of one place from prehistory to the present than Centennial, I would take some convincing.)  But Centennial is a big book. A proper door stop. At page 150 in Michener’s, you might still be wandering around with dinosaurs.

The rest of this blog could go on to be a standard review of Erpenbeck’s book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I would tell you that I admired the device of the Gardener character who links the chapters that move through the history of a house, from inhabitant to inhabitant.  He never speaks.  We watch the land change through his eyes; we see the circumstances of the house change through his chores, which mark his eventual decline.  I would tell you that Erpenbeck is able to create fully realised characters in what might look to be quick sketches, but are actually careful and specific wood cuts, deep and dark.  But I’m no fiction critic.  I am a wholly selfish reader, looking only for what I want.  It limits my reading to be sure, at least the pleasure of reading, reading as I am through that filter or, perhaps, those cross hairs.

I am looking for German writers to tell me what I do not know about how it is to be German.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  It is a great expectation.  Do I really expect a writer to deal with the whole of their cultural history in any one book?  Sadly, for me, yes.  For me, a really good book is not only a window on a world but a lift shaft, going down.  I want to understand how the world of the book is affected by the history of the people and the place, and also to see how the world of the book will affect the future, whenever that is.  I do not want a book that is relentlessly “present”.  And I mean not only the back stories of characters and their parents, grandparents, but also their ancestors, their ghosts, their culture’s failures and race’s migrations.  I want to know how the uses of land have changed.  I want to know where the graves are.  The problem for me – you will have seen this one coming – is that I’m American.  I have no German ancestors.  Not a one.  My second book is a history that is not “mine”, and it makes me afraid, just a little, to write it.

Of course, I have written it.  I have a finished first draft.  I will begin the second draft on Monday.  And I will begin my rewrite without reading the first draft.  I don’t need to.  I already know what I wrote and that it is not “right”.  I have written a draft of what happens in the book, as if it is the story I would tell you in a pub.  It is all plot and story and characters doing what it is that they do and, sometimes, why.  What I don’t have is a history for them or their worlds that is deep enough, rich enough, to satisfy.  What I know and have written is “correct” but I know it is not – right, not enough.  I know who it is to be those characters, living in those moments.  But I don’t have the weight of their histories in me.  A marvellous exemplar of this kind of work is Louise Erdrich.  No doubt, she deserves a blog of her own. That will be for next time.

Suffice to say, I still have books of war that I am ploughing through.  I am still making sure my history is “correct”.  But I am also looking for – something else.  Something richer, deeper, darker.  Something I don’t yet know.  Erpenbeck got me some of the way there.  But I’m greedy. It wasn’t far enough.

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