A Selfish Writer

This week I finished a draft of a short story that I intended to submit to The Nottingham Review for their Happiness themed issue. I spent some time thinking about what happiness was, what it means to me, where it comes from, where it goes, how you make it, how you lose it, and slowly those thoughts started to coalesce into a story. I wanted to write about the existential idea that the default setting of life is suffering, and how you have to work to make it better than that. I wanted to write about the little bubbles of happiness that emerge from the suffering, and how important it is to be aware enough to notice them while they are there. And I thought I had just the story to express the idea. It was a very personal story, based on some things that really happened to me and my wife.

I told her what I was planning to do and that she should read it before anyone and that if she wasn’t comfortable then I wouldn’t submit it. I wouldn’t show it to anyone. So I started to write it, this autofiction realist short story, and it went pretty well. The first half of the story turned out well. I don’t want to say it’s the best thing I have ever written, I don’t like that kind of hyperbole, but I think I wrote something that articulated what I was trying to say in an elegant but understated way. One line, the coup-de-gras of the scene, took a lot of work to get right. I wrote the same line over and over again in my notebook trying to get it just right, and finally finding the words. I was very happy with the first half of this short story. The second half needed a lot of work, but the first six hundred or so words were as close to what I wanted them to be as you could hope a first draft to manage. It laid itself bare, and that laying-bare of things is important to what I am trying to do with my writing.

I read it to my wife and she wasn’t okay with it. Too personal, too revealing, too close to the truth, too close to what really happened. She took the veto I had offered her and used it. I had half expected this, but I was extremely disappointed. I was so pleased with what I had written (the first half anyway) that I didn’t want to throw it away. I didn’t want those nicely sculpted six hundred words to go to waste. I wanted to use them. I wanted that little lump of my own personal truth to be out in the world.

I had tried to disguise the story a little, depersonalise it and muddle the details, but that doesn’t really work all that well. People who know the writer will often see either them or themselves in the writing, whether that was the intention or not. It would be hard to disentangle the fiction from the reality. It wouldn’t be hidden in plain sight. It would just be in plain sight.

I’m not proud to admit that I resisted the idea of not using this piece of writing. It felt important to me, to lay this thing out for the world to see, but I couldn’t get away from the guilt and the shame of what my need to use this piece of writing had done to my wife. It took me a day to get over it, apoligise and put that short story away for good. It shouldn’t have taken a day. It shouldn’t have taken any time at all.

I am selfish about writing because it is so important to me. I will close the door on everything to make sure I get the time I need. The cat gets about twenty minutes of sitting between me and the keyboard when I get home from work before she gets put out. You need to be selfish because otherwise it won’t ever get done. There will always be something important to do, someone will always be able to find a way to fill your time for you. But it doesn’t have to be neglectful. It doesn’t have to be monstrous. There is a balance to be had between what you need for yourself, and the other responsibilities you have to meet. Ultimately, I think I would rather be a good person than a good writer. I would rather be a successful husband than a successful writer. Maybe that’s a disadvantage, but it feels important to me. I don’t always get it right, of course. Sometimes it takes me a day to realise how much pain my artistic selfishness is causing. And all of this from a short story themed around happiness.

My Nerdy Boring Schedule

I’ve never been good at organising or scheduling myself and when it comes to writing my time has never been especially well planned. I have too many projects on the go at any one time and often no plan on how to tackle any of it. So I end up doing too much at the same time and achieving relatively little.

If something doesn’t come naturally to you, but you need to do it, you need to find ways of implementing it. You need mechanisms that make up for your deficiencies. I work hard, that comes naturally, but, if left to my own meandering devices, I don’t work efficiently. And if time is short – and it always is – then you need efficiency. I trained a kind of orderliness into myself for my day job because it was absolutely essential, but it did not come naturally, or easily. So I’m trying out a boring little schedule for my writing to see if I can improve how much I can get done. It tells me what to do so that on any given evening I can just sit down and get on with it.

Be regular and ordinary in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. Gustave Flaubert

And so my new writing schedule looks like this. Monday, submissions. Tuesday, fiction. Wednesday, blog. Thursday, fiction. Friday, nothing. Weekend, fiction.

Doing nothing on Fridays isn’t new. My average Friday is get home, eat dinner and then watch YouTube until I fall asleep. It’s just that in the past I would have felt guilty about it. Now it’s scheduled, so I’m fine. My wife helped to come up with the schedule and having a day where I deliberately don’t do anything is all down to her It’s a good idea – even a necessary one – and I never would have come up with it myself.

And having a whole evening set aside for submissions is essential at the moment because I am submitting a lot. Submitting work to places can be a lot more time consuming than it seems, if you take care with what you are doing, and I think you should. But researching publications, reading what they have already published, formatting your manuscript to meet their requirements, writing the cover letter, checking everything so you can be confidant in what you have done, all of that takes time. I spent this Monday doing submissions as this is the first week I am trying this schedule out and in the time I had available I was able to do three. Even though it would have been good to do more, in the past that would have spiralled out and eaten multiple evenings that really ought to be spent writing. Browsing the statistics on duotrope is one of those compulsive things can really get out of hand. But Monday is done, three is how many I did, I’ll do more next week.

This blog was something else that tended to get a bit lost. I’m not entirely what sure this blog is about exactly, other than me just blathering on about the booky stuff in my life, but I knew I wanted it to at least be regular, and reasonably frequent. It didn’t used to be. I used to manage about one post every two months. So I tricked myself into writing a blog post every week by declaring on the front page that that’s what I would do. It worked too. Aside from a couple of weeks ago when I was away on holiday I managed to do one post a week, for what that was worth.

But of course the real purpose of all this is to create the space to finish the fiction I start, and we’ll see how that goes. The truth is I never know how much time I am going to get in an evening. Sometimes it’s hardly any, and sometimes even if I have a lot I still don’t get much done. Sometimes writing works and sometimes it doesn’t and scheduling it doesn’t make the words come any better. But the space is there waiting for it.

Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life. Lawrence Kasdan

You never really switch off from being a writer. I carry a notebook everywhere I go and I’m constantly grabbing it to get something down quickly. Mostly it is full of sentences that come to me while I’m doing something else. I don’t tend to write ideas down, but I have to snatch at the sentences before I lose them. If I forget an idea that I thought sounded good I assume it can’t have been that good at all. But if I lose sentence, that stings. This week I wrote the same sentence down four times throughout the day, all phrased every so slightly differently. Getting it just right is delicate work, but when it flits through your head you have to grab it. So it’s not like I won’t do anything until my scheduled writing evenings, but that’s when I can get some serious work done. That’s the bit of my week that is for nothing else but writing.

Lincoln in the Bardo, Toby in the Lake District

This is where I have been this week.

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After a very long time without a holiday we finally managed to get away and have the most perfectly tranquil few days that I think it is possible to have. It ticked all the boxes on my short list of boxes to tick. Nice coffee, nowhere to be, nowhen to be there, a good book, and a nice view.

We got out a little bit, but November in the north of England isn’t always the best getting-out conditions. We did manage a little walking, taking our inadequate footwear on an adventurous hill climb along steep ravines that eventually took us to our destination; a waterfall with a rainbow in it.

Here’s the water fall with the rainbow in it;

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But never mind the holiday snaps, what did I read?

I read this years Booker prize winner, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. This was one of the short-listed books that I wanted to read but I didn’t get around to it until after it had won. The structure of this book is astonishing. It’s like a faux montage of historical texts, snipped and bound together to create a wider view of a short period of time during the American civil war when President Lincoln’s son died. Early on there are some lovely moments when the historical texts contradict each other a little, throwing doubt of the accuracy of any of the reports that followed. The book then seems to become a charming Shakespearian tale of the ghosts that inhabit the tomb that the president’s son has been placed in. All these elements coalesce into a story about loss and grief and letting go and moving on.

The two elements, the American civil way and the grief of losing a child (as well as the grief of losing a father) come together in some brilliant scenes where the ghosts inhabit the president and we see inside his head a little, but still with the lens of doubt about the authenticity of the reports we are given. And the way the story focuses on such a short span of time and uses that to muse on a much larger historical subject is masterful. Simultaneously small and sweeping in scope. I can’t think of another book I have read that is like this one.

And reading it in such a condensed way was lovely. It’s not often you can sit and read next to a lake for hours on end. Oh go on then, one more holiday snap.

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Why I Will Be Losing At Nanowrimo Again This Year

I really like nanowrimo a lot. I have tried it a few times but only reached the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month once. Last year I managed it, getting to the target word count a couple of days early but in previous years the attempts have fizzled out. It is hard to fit that kind of writing in without making some big concessions elsewhere. Last year was the most concerted effort I have ever given it, and it was nice to know that it was possible. I will give it another good shot this year, but I think I learned a few things about myself as a writer during last years nanowrimo and I want to keep them in mind.

There are a lot of reasons for trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days, but the reason I had last year was to get a chunk of a first draft written of a novel that I was very serious about. In fact, it is a novel that I was so serious about that I am still working on it now. And while I did manage to get a lot of writing done, afterwards, when I was looking at what I had, it was actually a lot less than the word count might suggest. Too much of what I had written simply wasn’t good enough, and not that it was just in need of a second draft and a tidy up. A lot of it was just wrong. So my second draft is essentially a second first draft.

Writing that many words in that short a time doesn’t come naturally to me. My average work count is usually about 600 words in a sitting, which really isn’t that many. But often the time I have available in a day yields about that many words. 50,000 words in a month is about 1700 words a day, which I can do, but I found that I started to hit diminishing returns.

There were some benefits to writing that wildly. I discovered a lot about the story and the characters. Some elements of the story emerged without me knowing they were there, and they have ended up being integral to how I am writing it now. I feel like I have a much greater connection to the characters. I feel like I know them better. And I think I know where I went wrong with the nano draft. I think I know what it is about the tone that doesn’t work, and that is a very useful thing to know. So while almost none of what I wrote last year is being retained, it was an essential part of what the book is becoming.

So what to do with this years nano? Well I don’t want to work on this book again, and I don’t want to try and write a new novel as I am currently very involved in this one. So I am going to be doing a little cheat and this year I will be writing a series of short stories. I have a few ideas queued up to get me started, and then I am just going to do some more of that wild writing and see what comes of it. If I can come out of November with a couple of drafts that I can work into something more finished it will have been okay. And I just really like joining in with nanowrimo. I don’t have much of a writing community, I have been meaning to try and join a writers group for ages but never seem to get around to it. Nano makes me feel like I’m in the thick of it with everyone else. So that’s what I’ll be doing, but I also won’t be too worried about the daily or monthly word count. If I fall a bit short, that’s okay, because some days just sitting at my computer and writing my 600 words feels like a real achievement.

In other news, I have a new short story up at The Dime Show Review called A Stranger in Your World. Go check it out, and while you’re there, have a look around. I really like this journal. They have some great shorts, as well as audio, and ten word stories typed on vintage typewriters, which I absolutely adore. They are gorgeous little things.

Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley

This week I read Bad Dreams, Tessa Hadley’s short story collection. I have been reading an awful lot of short stories lately, partly because I went on a literary journal buying spree a while ago and they have been slowly arriving in the post. But I bought Bad Dreams because Tessa Hadley judged The Bridport Prize in 2016 so I figured since she read my story I should take a look at hers too.

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I thought Bad Dreams was absolutely brilliant. That’s why I’m writing about it here. (I don’t blog about books I don’t like, I tend to just put them away and move on.) The stories are made up of the most mundane ingredients that slowly come together to make something greater. All of her stories have a kind of airy triviality about the events and the characters, how small their lives are, how inconsequential it all seems, but then by the end of the story those trivial details have transcended and become bigger and more significant. I absolutely love how she does this. This is what realism can do so well. Taking all this stuff that is boringly familiar on the surface and contextualising it so that it seems almost magical.

A couple of the stories really stood out for me. Her Share of Sorrow is about a young girl who discovers reading, and then writing, and sets herself to writing a novel. Her family discover the novel and make fun of it a little, and so, crushed by this, she retreats and finishes it in secret. See how small that story sounds? But it evokes the private thrill of writing so perfectly that it almost has a transcendent quality.

But by far the best, for me anyway, was Silk Brocade. As soon as I finished reading it I instantly read the final few pages again. It is about two dressmakers who are hired to make a wedding dress for an old acquaintance. It about loss and change and drift and reunion in a most unexpected way. As much as I want to describe the clever, heart-breaking ending, what I think you should really do is try and read it for yourself. If you like that kind of thing. I think it is one of the best short stories I have ever read.

I enjoyed this collection of shorts so much I am certain to try one of her novels later. If I can ever make it through the mountain of short stories that I have recently acquired – made more difficult by the fact the Jeffrey Eugenides new short story collection Fresh Complaint came out recently, as well as the 50th issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, which is particularly lavish, even by their high standards. Here, look at it. Who can resist this?

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