Thursday, 26 May 2011


During my enforced wait at hospital, I was able to devour two books, both very different but both inspirational.

The first, ill-chosen book was the dark and brooding blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris.  The woman is a genius; mistress of deceit and sleight of hand.  I knew there would be twists in there, and even anticipated I might fall for her manipulations, but it was beyond every expectation. Another book to recommend, but not even remotely feel-good. It's a warped, chilling story;  you follow the writer warily and reluctantly, but hooked, unable to squirm free, despite the sense of foreboding that she has so cleverly laced every page with.  Her phrases and marriages of words are exquisite;  it was a lesson in observing with all the senses.  The imagery was gorgeous, the spell she cast disturbing and complete.  I felt like a bird watching the weasel dance; enchanted against my will, knowing it couldn't end well.  As I suggested before, it was not the best novel for calming nerves and lightening the mood, so was perhaps a poor choice for the time, but I'm glad I didn't miss it.

The second was far more feel-good, though it had a dark side, too. The Distant Hours' darkness is more gothic romance than unnerving, and the story was spun out beautifully. It was a whole hundred pages or more longer than blueeyedboy, yet I read it just as compulsively, lost in the delight of mysteries I couldn't unravel alone, awed by characters who lived and breathed, and couldn't just have been the creation of Kate Morton.  She herself says she hopes for readers who can't put her books down and are sorry when they end, and that was exactly how I responded to her deft playing of my emotions.  Another awe-inspiring author, with phrases that thrilled and the ability to confer a sense of setting that is masterful. This is what I want to do; if I could write like that, I could die happy.

 The problem is, how to teach myself to be better;  how to sharpen each thought, and how to motivate myself to spend the time polishing each word till it is perfect in its place...while still finding my own style, my own voice.  It needs a lifetime of work to fulfil your own potential;  I wish I had started twenty years ago, but better late than never.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Silver Linings

  It's been an eventful week, for all the wrong reasons.  I ended up having to go to hospital for a minor operation, which I was told would be under general anaesthetic.  Having never had a general before, I was  anxious, and, true to form, Steve was away for the weekend. (His super-power is absenting himself just before he's needed).

In the end, after eight hours' waiting, the doctors sent me home and asked me to return the following day.
 (It has just occurred to me that this would have been a classic opportunity to practise my grumbling, and I missed it! Really must try harder).

  When I returned, they decided the general anaesthetic was, as it were, off the table, and a local anaesthetic would do.  All well and good; in the afternoon I was meant to be at the playgroup Spring Fayre, face-painting , and perhaps I would make it after all...  However, I hadn't accounted for the slow-turning wheels of the NHS. It was a further five hours before I was finally sliced and packed, and on my way home to join the tail end of the Fayre.

   I expect I earned Brownie points from the rest of the committee for staggering straight from hospital to face painting, although I only managed to deface six small children after all that.  And as time wore on, the anaesthetic wore off.  It turned out I was in more pain than I'd realised, and perhaps I had been silly not to have gone straight home for a lie-down.  (After all, what more could one want, after thirteen hours of Sitting and Waiting, than a wee rest?)

  If I sound quite relaxed about the whole thing, it's because I am. I detest waiting, and waiting for something you are dreading is a particular kind of hell.  During the first eight hours, it was all I could do to keep my attention on the very good book I was reading, which was all that stood between me and a minor breakdown.  But even then, I was aware of the guilty pleasure of reading for hours at a stretch (though it would've been preferable if it hadn't been on an empty stomach), and devouring a book at one sitting.  Perhaps the choice of book could have been more prudent (I'll come back to that another time).

  On the second day, however, knowing I was having a local, everything was different. I was able to sit curled up in a plastic hospital chair, ignoring the pain and suffering around, lost in a world of makebelieve.   I managed to choose a less dark novel, which was still gripping (I'll come back to that another day, too),  sip on a cup of tea and sink into another world for a few hours.  I think I've even learnt a little over those two days by looking for the sleights of hand the two different authors used - what larks!

    I'm not hoping for a repeat any time soon, though.

New job in September

My writing has suffered for the past two weeks.  I had an interview for a teaching post at a local school last Wednesday (the school Bean attends, as it happens).  My nerves were rattling days in advance, but fortunately I kept myself steady enough, and was offered the job.  I haven't yet adjusted to the thought of changing jobs after eleven years in my current post; it will be a seismic shift for me.

Preparing has taken a lot of my time lately, but the good news is, I will save thirty-five minutes commuting time each way. It may only be for two days a week, but even with my dodgy maths skills, I can see that's over two hours a week to be spent elsewhere...clear a path to the laptop!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Spying on page 99

     For those who love reading and writing, here's another way to spend time on the internet that isn't on your own work:  Writers upload the 99th page of their manuscripts (allegedly) for others to critique.  Although some of the critiques seem blunt or ignorant, others are insightful.  Certainly it's good fun in short bursts to read and evaluate work on such a snapshot - it gives a chilling glimpse of how agents and publishers can judge a submission on very little. You can choose which genre you'd like to read most of, which can minimise guilt if you are wasting writing time on such frivolities.
     A couple of caveats;  I think critiques should be taken on merit - as I have already said, some are not discerning. Also, not everyone is really uploading page 99, I think, as I read a prologue on one page (not usual at page 99...)
     I'm not sure I'm ready to upload my own page 99, turns out mine is mostly backstory...

Monday, 9 May 2011

Barbara Kingsolver

     What a treat Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer is.  I read The Poisonwood Bible three years ago, during a summer camping trip;  if there had been a television, I may never have finished it, although I find abandoning books very difficult.
     It seemed over-lengthy, the characters didn't interest me, and I didn't like any of them, particularly. The whole flavour of the novel seemed  bleak and depressing to me. I may be being unfair, as I am writing this in retrospect.  Since then, I've heard others rave about it, and wondered what I missed. 
     Then my wonderful book-lending friend passed Prodigal Summer on to me, and pointed out it was by the same author (my wonderful book-lending friend had been entranced by The Poisonwood Bible). 
     I didn't find the cover very alluring, and the blurb failed to pull me in; I think the whole previous experience was putting me off.  It sat on my bedside table for months, and I always selected another over it.  At last, this week, I picked it up, having steeled myself to trudge through it. I was intending to read two pages, just to kick start myself.  An hour later,  I had to force myself to put it down, already lost to it.  I've read it greedily for the past week, and finished it, a little regretful, yesterday - regretful that there wasn't more.  The skill and craft of Barbara Kingsolver shone on every page;  I was enchanted by the writing and the voices, and cared about every character, even the cranky ones.  I adored the way the narrative was woven so that the separate stories intersected at last; there were a couple of surprises along the way, a frankness that I loved, and so much to learn about a far away place and people. It has left me feeling sated in a way a book hasn't for a while. In fact, every time I walk past it, I get a little jolt of pleasure that I can sit and read it when I've finished a few jobs, and then remember that I've already come to the end.  
     The only thing is, it's knocked my confidence in my writing . I know I can't do that, and I wish I could. 

Sunday, 8 May 2011


      After my ramblings on neighbourly tolerance (or lack of it), today there has been a sequel.  I'm afraid it wasn't my finest hourr.
     I was strapping my smallest son into his car seat when a bearded man with a pot-belly and a camera around his neck materialised behind me.  It gave me quite a shock.
     'I wondered if I could have a word...?'
     'Of course,' I said, pasting on a polite smile, thinking, as you would, about the sand mountain outside our house. Or perhaps he wanted to complain about the skip that is making everyone brake to 2 miles an hour while they negotiate gingerly around it. (Get some spatial awareness, people!)  (See, I'm learning the grumbling way...)
     But no, it turned out his problem was something else.
     'When you park  here, if you could go forwards a bit, it'll leave room for my car behind.  At the moment, you see, you're taking up two car parking spaces.'
     Of course, all the appropriate responses fled my mind. I forgot that I'd pulled up right behind another car the night before.  I forgot that he doesn't own the road, nor the spaces on it, anyway.
          'I've only lived here since 1960...' he continued, with a chuckle, following me to the other side of the car as I strapped in the older two.  (Does that give him squatters' rights over a patch of road, I wonder?)
     Being the fool I am, instead of defending myself, I made placatory noises about being a bad woman driver who can't always tell where I am when I'm reversing. What nonsense! I'm a perfectly able driver, and I'm even pretty good with reverse parking.  However, to prove my self-deprecating lie, I went on to share with him the tale of how the dent in the rear bumper happened;  the only time I've ever bumped anything in twelve years of driving.  I ignored the sane, little voice in my head that told me to shut up.    I couldn't stop my mouth from blurting out rubbish.  If someone was going to criticise, there was a traitorous part of me that was going to join in the fun, and prove what a good sport I was.
      I even thanked him for pointing out that he'd like me to park so my rear bumper is just over the grid -  that one there, that we both had to lean down to spot under the car.  As we peered, another car had to slow to 2 miles an hour to navigate around our backsides.
     I think he could see the strain in my smile;  he made some inane comment about having not realised I had three children.  I interpreted this as a clumsy attempt at a compliment, but he didn't really carry it off.  Perhaps a little voice in his head was shouting, shut up too.   He said he hoped he hadn't caused offence, and I gave a bright laugh and assured him that no, I appreciated him speaking to me about it... Really I was thinking, was it he who called the council about the sand and grit? And since I'd complained about the underhanded tell-tale tactics of whoever did, I told myself I had no right to be annoyed about him accosting me in person over his parking issues.
     As I drove away, I was in a bit of a huff. It was very illogical, and most unreasonable, given that he had been good enough to talk to me; and given that it was inconsiderate of me to be taking up two car-parking spaces.  (Oh, wait a minute, someone else was parked, and I pulled up behind them. Right, I keep forgetting that). It seems that my natural reaction when someone is assertive is to feel guilty, to want to confess to anything if it appeases them, and then to feel quite defensive and angry.
     I can see how neighbourhood feuds spring up. 
     By the time we'd wandered around the local garden centre I'd cooled down, and was counting my blessings.  Here was the perfect opportunity for me to hone my grumbling skills - a neighbour I could complain vociferously about!
      Imagine my surprise then, when the doorbell rang at tea time.  There he was on the doorstep, minus the camera but with his wife hovering in his shadow.  By the time I realised they hadn't come to strike up some new complaint, they had thrust half-price vouchers for a circus into my hand, provided rave reviews of the show (which, apparently, also offers free camel rides - now, there's a bargain) and strolled home calling out friendly goodbyes.
     I'm stumped.  Just when you're ready for a good complain, people turn out to be kind at heart.  How am I meant to build up a head of annoyed steam when that happens?
     As for my ridiculous behaviour,  perhaps there is a place for an apology when you're not really in the wrong, if it builds a bridge between people.  Probably not, but let's say so for my sake.  But there can't be an excuse for shooting yourself in the foot.  While I'm practising complaining, I think my assertiveness skills need brushing up, too.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Art of Grumbling

I've just discovered that during the past thirty-five years, I've neglected an important life-skill.  I hardly ever complain.  Stop laughing, Steve, I can hear you.  Alright, I don't mean that I hardly ever complain to friends and family.  In fact, if you got me started on Steve and his habit of leaving trails of breadcrumbs, expecting kelpies to empty the dustbins, eating cereal at the study desk and leaving the dirty dishes there.... well, I might never stop.

But I'm not a public complainer, unlike most other people I know.  It's making me feel left out.

When Steve is in the throes of road rage, I'm confused how he can get so angry, as if he never makes mistakes, or gets lost. Who ceded the moral ground to him? When mum-friends are complaining about the playgroup, the school, the park, I think of how lucky we are to have those same things  - and beautiful, healthy children to enjoy them.  When people bemoan the state of the country, I think how much we have to be thankful for in Britain (a fact a friend had to emigrate for a year to New Zealand to discover). 

I suppose my problem is, I'm too busy seeing things from everyone's point of view.  I can find excuses for most people (though there are, of course, limits).  But I'm obviously missing out on something most people enjoy, so it's time to grow some pig-headed opinions, take illogical dislikes to other people and the way they behave, and act as if I'm irreproachable.

Here's what has caused my about-turn.  Today, the builder started the patio. He wasn't due to arrive until mid-day, but the materials he'd ordered arrived before him, and the sand and grit was put on the pavement outside our house. Less than two hours later, a plump and pleasant man from the council knocked on the door to tell me he'd had complaints;  who'd ordered the stuff? Would it be moved soon? And what about that skip...? I thought things not lawful to be uttered, and said the skip had a permit, at which he hummed and hawwed  and said that wasn't really his business....could I get the builders to move the sand, please?

My lovely builder was there in ten minutes (he was already on his way) and the problem solved.  I, on the other hand, stewed for an hour or two, playing 'whodunnit' with the neighbours - which one(s) were so upset that they told tales on us, rather than knocking on the door? I'd always thought we lived in quite a friendly street, with a good community feel.  What kind of people have nothing better to do than wait for someone to do something they don't like, then run to the council about it?

That's when I decided that the problem was perhaps mine.  Perhaps all this time, I've allowed myself to be too thin-skinned, and perhaps if I can learn to throw myself into complaining, and learn how to do it properly myself, I won't feel so hurt when someone complains about me.

I couldn't wait till Ste got home to try out complaining about the neighbours and how they'd 'dobbed on us' to the council.  Immediately he got annoyed.  (He can give me lessons).

 'Pass me some cardboard,' he said, 'I'll go out and put a sign in the sand, telling them all to grow a pair and come and talk to us if they have a problem.'

'No, no, don't do that! It's rude.  And they have had a lot of mess for a long time.  And if they've seen the state of our garden for the last few years, they probably thought it was going to be there for weeks.  And I'd be annoyed if someone else blocked the pavement with their sand...'

Uh-oh, must try harder not to walk in other people's shoes.  I'll keep practising...

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Blame the parents

The oldest two are becoming more competitive by the day; an interesting phenomenon to watch, especially when you add the politics of gender to the conflict.

The six-year old, who is a precocious reader in the context of the school she attends, will read almost anything she can lay her hands on.  (She gets her reading habits from me). Today I had a lingerie catalogue in the post, and barely had I thrown away the cellophane wrapper before she had put in her request to have a look after I'd finished. 

'They look nice swimming costumes,' she observed.  After a short conversation in which she appeared to doubt my sanity when I said the items in question were, in fact, undies and would not be acceptable at the Lido, she finally accepted Mummy's greater life experience. 

She read the catalogue with inspirational enthusiasm, pointing out her favourite sets, bouncing with excitement when she found a page of pyjamas, and then showing me the swimwear at the back with the solicitousness of a saleswoman.  Having sated herself, for now, she wanted to crow over her brother.  She arranged a superior expression on her face, and turned to him.

'I'm afraid there's nothing in here for you,' she said, 'It's all girl's stuff.  There's nothing you'd like.'

The four year old snatched it from her, and shook it open. 'Yes, there IS!' he said, and began to study the pictures of half-naked women, frowning with concentration.

The six year old looked across at me, stumped for a moment.  Then a little half-smile appeared.  'He's not really reading,' she whispered to me, 'He's only looking at the pictures.'

I think he must get his reading habits from his Dad...


Sunday, 1 May 2011

Writing Routines

The Easter holiday is winding up;  just the May Day bank holiday left to enjoy.  I've done nowhere near as much writing as I hoped,  but then this has happened to me during school holidays before.  When I'm not at work, the children aren't out at school or pre-school, either. 

We've had a lovely break. Sometimes there is something very bleak about the shackles of routine. Most days I hate having to make the six-year old's packed lunch the evening before she needs it.  (In September, I will have to do the four-year old's too.  My heart is sinking already). There is something wearing about getting up at the same time every day, and spending the next hour and a half chivvying the children, encouraging them to get on independently, unpacking the dishwasher and all the other menial and repetitive tasks that seem so joyless and thankless.  (I'm trying to value these tasks a bit more, and think how they bless my little family.  I don't want to waste my life looking forward - I want to enjoy what I have now). Best of all, when it comes to holidays, I don't think I've said, 'Come on! We're late!' once in the past fortnight. 

I think it's true that we can determine much of our own happiness by our outlook, though, so I'm finding things that are positive about the end of the holidays.  Slipping back into the harness of routine will give back certain things I've missed: regular, well-planned meals, for a start, with a bit less of the junk and a bit more of the vegetable in them.  I've missed walking the children to school and back twice a day (you'd be amazed how much healthier and fitter I feel during termtime, just for that).  I'll get back those precious extra writing times when I can synchronise the two-year old's naps with the older two's times out of the house.  

For all the things I hate about constraints of routine, I do value it, too.  The break has been wonderful.  It was just what I needed, right then.  It's been great for us as a family.  But I'm ready for it to conclude.  And the conclusion I've come to is that I need to be stricter with myself about writing routines.  Two or three times carved out of my week isn't enough; it needs to be a daily thing, even if it's only for ten minutes.  Maybe within the chrysalis of a daily writing routine, there will be time for a miracle of creation to occur, even if what emerges is wet-winged and grounded in the beginning.