This is my first contribution to the short story website STORGY. A thousand words based on the title Needle in the Staff Toilet. I hope you enjoy it.
Monthly Archives: May 2013
Yeah, I’m Right-Brained. You?
If, as a person, I had to be categorised and filed away, you’d find me under ‘c’ for creative. For much of my life, writing’s had a magnetic hold on me, and I’ve been wondering, lately, what made me that way? Why not choose music or art? Why not design jewellery, create amazing things with clay, or sculpt?
Well, for starters, I’m not a fan of mess, and painting and crafts can be chaotic. I mean, you don’t have to clean up after clicking away on a keyboard, do you? The worst you have to deal with is some crumpled paper, and maybe a leaky ink cartridge or two. As for music, let’s just say my co-ordination and musical skills are in an early – and for that, read neanderthal – stage of development, but more on that later.
Looking back, I suspect, I didn’t choose writing, it was writing that chose me.
Even as a small child, books and I had a bit of a love affair going on. In the beginning, it was Dr Seuss and the Mister Men who captured my imagination, with bright pictures, quirky characters, and eccentric storylines. (And predictably, the slightly sinister, yet strangely alluring, Cat in the Hat, has crossed over in adult life, into my taste in men.) It was also around this time that you couldn’t keep me away from the spells, castles, and witches of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. And yes, I was that annoying kid at school that actually enjoyed Sally and Paul books.
But, by about seven or eight, something changed in the way I was reading. If I remember rightly, it was the Famous Five series and later, the Chronicles of Narnia that seduced me. Through Blyton and Lewis, reading became an adventure, where the characters’ personalities were more diverse, and the girls had their own minds – and, often misbehaved – like boys. In these books, kids were free, and by reading about them, I too, was unshackled from the confines of mundane family life.
Curiosity at the ready, I tiptoed, wide-eyed, into children’s classics: Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, What Katy Did, Black Beauty, Heidi, and Jane Eyre. Mesmerised by the stories, my imagination was free to roam, and experiment. One minute I’d be viewing society through the eyes of a horse (I always wanted to be able to morph into an animal, weird child that I was). In another moment, I’d see what it was to suffer a debilitating illness, or what life would be if everything was topsy-turvy, and the people around me talked in riddles (not so different from adult life). Reading gave me a sense of history outside my family and friendships. It gathered exciting worlds into the four walls of my bedroom. I loved the variety, the unpredicatablity. Reading drew me in. (And, just think what I might have been like, had the Harry Potter Chronicles existed then. I think I would have spontaneously combusted.)
Only-Child Syndrome Leads to…
Any psychologist would probably say that I immersed myself in books because I was an only child. I know that. But, it doesn’t matter. To me, books were more than just a past-time – they were my companions. Even now, when I sit with a good book, I get that same sense of comfort and warmth as I bask in the words. But, it has to be a real book, with real pages – it’s my age, you know? The echoes of childhood coziness can only be reborn with the touch of the paper on my fingers; when I see the wad of the pages I’ve already read, and the pages yet to read. An e-reader won’t do. The sense of satisfaction isn’t the same. On top of that, the glare hurts your eyes – books aren’t meant to be bright. And plastic doesn’t feel soft on your fingers, either.
So it’s clear where my love of reading comes from. But what is it that, throughout my life, has tickled the back of my neck, pushing me to write? One reason – I’m a little ashamed to say – isn’t so altruistic. If you come closer, I’ll whisper it in your ear…
… Attention Seeking Behaviour
I have, on occasion, been known to lose myself in that popular cliche of the fantasy world. You know, the one about being rich and famous and gaining the respect and admiration of the world at large? Yes, that one. Where you laud it up at a book signing, or a publicity event, and the crowd hangs onto your every word? At one point, someone might even gasp.
What? You mean you’ve never had that fantasy? Well, yes, I am embarrassed, and I do apologise… but it is only a dream. And it does remain in my head.
I’ve never hired real people to re-enact it.
Not yet, anyway.
In my own defence, I do know my limitations. I once had a similar fantasy about being a singer. That is, until the age of ten, when I heard myself on a tape recorder belting out Memory from Cats. Let’s just say, when I heard my singing, I realised it was within my capacity to give any alley-cat a run for its money. And, don’t worry, Barbara Streisand – your job is safe.
Really, It’s Not About the Glory
For all I’ve said, fame isn’t a focus for me, (though to earn an income from writing is a different matter). I’m just not outgoing enough. Yes, I’ve been an exhibitionist at times, but alcohol is usually to blame. Okay, I admit, I once did a Dirty Dancing-style double act at a party in front of hundreds of people, but this would never have happened if I’d been sober. I am, at heart, a shrinking violet.
Take, for example, my hatred of public-speaking. Me speaking, that is, not others. I’ve done it, but it’s not a pleasant experience – for me, or for those watching. Imagine Bridget Jones at the book launch of Kafka’s Motorbike, and you’ve got a slightly improved version of me.
But the worst thing, I find, is when I’m out socially with a group. I’m safely ensconced in a corner, talking to a close friend, when cruelly, my feeling of security is turned on its head. It’s that moment when I become aware that my private anecdote has caught the attention of our crowd. They turn, en-masse, to listen. As I’m not very good in the spotlight – not without the help of a large bottle of wine, anyway – their unexpected change of focus makes me veer off from my tale, which up to this point, was mildly entertaining. In an amazing feat of carcrash-storytelling, I stall my words, and inevitably smash the timing of the punchline. At this point, the story’s usually tailed off to nothing more than a shrug. And, do you know what’s worse? The collective mental sigh of their disappointment as I fluff my lines.
It’s About the Magic
So, if it’s not about the limelight, what is it that I get from writing? What do I want to achieve?
I suppose in part, writing is about the attention. It’s a chance to show off what you can do, but unlike a band on the stage, an author doesn’t have to appear as the front-man (or woman). Not unless they want to.
The words speak for themselves.
It’s the writing that’s the star.
Yes, readers might be interested in who a writer is; their life; their ideas; what motivates them. But it’s the writing that holds their attention – hopefully. This lets me off the hook a bit. As you know, I’m not very good if I’m put on the spot.
But my main motivation is that I want people to go out and choose to read my stories, and when they do, I want them to get so lost in the words, character, and plot, that they forget they are reading. I want them to get so absorbed, that they only come up for air when they need to eat, drink, pee, or remember that they’ve forgotten to pick up their children from school. I want someone to feel as I did, aged seven, when I read about a group of four siblings unexpectedly passing through the back of a wardrobe, into a magical world enchanted by a witch.
See, it doesn’t matter how old you are, to love books. With most things, as you grow older, you lose the freshness of life. Food doesn’t taste as good, travel is less exciting, new toys (or gadgets) quickly lose their appeal – but when you read a great book, it’s just like that first time. When you lose yourself in words – whether it be for fifteen minutes, an hour, or on a particularly long stint, an overnighter – you simply don’t want the book, or your adventure, to end.
It’s like lying on a bed as a child, book open, fiddling with the worn corners of a page. You’re not just reading about Narnia.
You are there.
It’s that feeling I want to recreate in the reader, when I write.
Why This Blog?
First, of all, I’ll be honest. I’m not comfortable with all this blogging business. That is, when I say not comfortable, read that as ‘I’m panicked at having to reveal things about myself to a bunch of people I don’t know’. There’s the fear that I’ll be JUDGED on what I’ve written… Is the content funny enough? Is it well thought out? Does it make sense? What about the punctuation and the grammar? All of this is scary. (Apparently, the average writer is an insecure type, and I can vouch for that). So why do it? Well, see, there’s the question. I really want to make it in writing. I really, REALLY want to. And the common consensus is, to be a writer, you have to get yourself out there. And being afraid isn’t an option. So, here I am! I’m out there!
It’s good to be here. Outside my comfort zone.
Or so I’ve been told…
Reading over that first paragraph, I’m having a strange sense of deja-vu. At one time, I had exactly the same feelings about creative writing itself. I remember the awful crawly-skin of having to show someone something I’d written, the tightened chest as I realised I might be JUDGED, and even worse (dum… dum…. DUUUUUUM!!!) being really proud of a piece of writing, only to receive a critique which made me realise I wasn’t quite the natural I’d been led to believe. (‘Your emails are sooooo funny, Sally. You’d make a brilliant writer.’ PAH!)
Accepting Constructive Criticism
Yes, criticism is tough. But the key to improvement is to accept criticism from people you trust (and not simply show your writing to people who will tell you what you want to hear). Believe me, in the end, you will value and even welcome those negative comments on your work. As long as the comments are constructive. And there’s the word – constructive.
Before I consider what constructive means, let’s look at the word trust. I trust my husband, Mr W. With everything. Well, with everything apart from my writing. He just doesn’t get it. In the few times I’ve let him read what I’ve written, he’s nit-picked every typo (which, I’ll grant, is important), but then never mentioned anything good. After he’s fed back, I’m the writerly equivalent of a snail that’s been crunched under someone’s shoe. And that is not good.
You see, basically, he’s not interested. And he doesn’t understand the whole reviewing thing. For starters, it annoys him that I use words in my writing that I’d never use in real life. Duh! He can’t seem to get over that. I assume it’s because he knows me too well. To add to this, he only likes certain genres of writing – action, crime, thrillers, and war. That’s it. I don’t write that kind of stuff. He can’t get over that either. Thirdly, as you may have already realised, he’s pedantic to the core. For him, this means that on a grey and cloudy day, he’s certain of rain. He’s seen the weather report, and the meteorologists agree with him. They forecast rain too. But, he’ll focus so much on the rain, it means that he’ll not see the rays of sunshine peeking out, or the rainbow above the trees.
Don’t get the wrong impression – Mr W likes to laugh, but complaining is so much more his bag.
So, what I’m trying to say is, though I trust Mr W, I don’t use him as a reviewer. He’s virtually useless to me, as my confidence becomes pancake flat with every word he reads. This should not be the purpose of critiquing.
And here we have it. The crux of the issue. He’s not constructive. He can only see the negatives. On the other hand, my teenage daughter, Ms Backchat, (known, henceforth, as Ms B) is. She’s not cruel, but neither does she tiptoe around trying to keep me happy. I’m her mother. Why would she want to make me happy?
Anway, back to the point. Once you’ve got someone whose opinion you trust to review your work, you have to be ready to not always like what you hear. A critique is only helpful if you are told the truth, even though it’s likely to hurt.
However, as with the word trust, there are levels of truth too. For me, when I say truth, it’s preferable if it’s a truth that’s wrapped in cushions and feathers, so that it doesn’t hurt like a rock smashing into your face as your reviewer clumsily hands it over to you. If you’ve not been lucky enough to experience constructive criticism yet, the cushions-and-feathers part of the review sounds like this: ‘I like how you set up the scene. It’s really vivid, and I feel like I’m there.’ But wrapped within it is the rock of: ‘But do you need to use shimmering, hovering, and searing all in the same sentence? (But I like ALL of those adjectives!)
What I want to know is, why is it always the bits I like best that have to go?
For a novice writer, no matter how small the criticism, it always feels brutal. The cushions and feathers might help, but like the princess in the famous fairy tale, they don’t hide the discomfort of that tiny dried pea. No matter how many soft mattresses you might pile up on top of it, you still come out of the whole experience feeling bruised.
But, you have to remember that, if all that someone tells you is, ‘OMG, that’s amazing, that’s the best thing I’ve ever read!’ it’s actually not very helpful. Neither is them telling you that your writing is ‘Pap! Utter Pap!’
What we all need is a reader who can highlight the good, but also identify the bad. From this, as writers, we can learn and move on. We can get better. And for those writers who don’t want to hear about the bad, or who are not willing to act on constructive criticism, I’d say, their writing is never going to improve.
If you’re serious about improvement, you will realise that every time you write or re-write, it helps you to achieve your purpose – to become a better writer. And the consequent result, of hearing more positives in the constructive criticism that you receive, will make the pain of the rock a little easier to bear.