Category: Creative Writing

Swedish death clearing and other adventures

Swedish death clearing and other adventures

Marie Kondo is so hot right now. Everyone has an opinion on her approach to clearing out stuff. I’ve been following the Minimalist and Decluttering movements for a number of years now. And I think a lot of the time there’s a big ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ scenario going on. It’s the difference between focusing on the what (getting rid of excess stuff) and the why (making life simpler). I think at this point in time many, many people are overwhelmed – but not just by their physical stuff. There’s an awful lot of mental clutter created by our constant exposure to social media, the expectation that we fill out endless quality surveys, the millions of passwords we need to have, the endless mailing lists we have to sign up to if we want access to anything… Life has become really complicated. It can become incredibly easy to lose sight of what’s important.

Clearing out: a growing impulse

I’m not sure if it’s because of the recent spate of books, or programs like Marie Kondo’s, but decluttering has hit the mainstream. My family and I spent the beginning of the year with relatives who are doing Swedish death clearing. This involves clearing out your home before you die so your family don’t have to do it afterwards. I cleaned out my hoarding relative’s home years ago – a process that took three months, two giant skips and a fortune in cleaning products. So I’m all for the Swedish approach. It requires good communication though, because the relative doing the clearing may want to pass things on. If you’ve cleared out your house it can require some negotiation to avoid bringing home a raft of new things.

Back to the forest

See how easy it is to get focused on trees? I mean stuff? What I really wanted to write about in this post was what I consider the most important thing – the ‘why’ of clearing. You see, I think it works best if the process is about discovering what you want in your life, not just removing what you don’t want. If you touchstone for making decisions about what to keep is ‘is this important to me?’ then it becomes a much easier process. And as a writer the steady hum at the back of my life has always been the need to try to clear space for writing.

In the last twelve months that hum has become louder. I’ve developed a tremor in my hands which makes fine motor control more difficult. I’m not sure how related it is, but my energy levels have been very depleted. What this brings into focus is the need to clear out things that aren’t important or relevant to my life any more, but take up time and energy, to make space for the things that matter. (What I’ve really done here is sneak in a ‘new year’ post. Because what I’m talking about is my focus for 2019.) And not everything that takes up time and energy is physical.

Procrastination

I recently joked that doing my PhD I developed outstanding skills in procrastination. Any excuse not to do research and write the thesis. So one of the things I have to clear out this year is procrastination. Not an easy task. But I discovered when my kids were little

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash.

that realising your time is limited is a great incentive not to procrastinate. So now, discovering that there are days when my energy levels are non-existent means that on the days when I have energy, I grab it and use it. It doesn’t always stop me procrastinating, if what I have to do is something I really don’t enjoy, but a lot of times it does. The other thing I do to beat procrastination is to focus on the stories that are waiting to be written. This may sound crazy, but sometimes I wake in a cold sweat thinking about all the stories I may never get to write. But during the day, thinking of those stories can turn my panic into proactive action.

Keeping focused

Of course, procrastination isn’t the only problem. But it’s a start. As I said, life is always complicated. This year I’ll be working two jobs, parenting a family, trying to write and market my books and trying to work out how to deal with my health issues if I want to function at all. The end of the year is always a great time to take stock and think about the year ahead, before you end up mired in everything again. But the chaos quickly creeps up. That’s why I think having a really clear ‘why’ of clearing out is important. For me that ‘why’ is finding time to write. So I’ll be giving more thought to what else to declutter apart from procrastination. Hopefully if I’m successful the stories will stop waking me up in the night wanting to be told. Wish me luck!

 

 

 

 

Why write?

Why write?

Recently I have had very little time to write. To earn income I work as an academic editor. I’ve just edited several PhDs and an academic book in quick succession. Since finishing the first draft of Pierrot’s Song I haven’t done a single paragraph of creative writing. I haven’t had time in the midst of earning an income. It’s made me question why I am even writing, when I have to spend a large part of my time not writing in order to eat.

I’m 100% sure I’m not the only writer with this dilemma.  No doubt it occurred in all eras of history. Back in the old days I bet poor old Ugggh wanted to compose a tone poem, but the wooly mammoth were in season.  Dreamy young Riccardo wanted to carve marble like his hero, Leonardo, but there were shoes to stitch or he wouldn’t eat.

Writers don’t make money

Artists rarely make a living wage from their art. If you look at the figures, it’s a fairly depressing picture. The average Australian yearly wage 2 years ago was $84,032. The average yearly earnings for an Australian author from their books is $12,900.  And given that’s the average, it includes all the top-selling authors, whose books are the default purchases for many readers. That means there are many, many authors earning far less than that figure. So why write?

Excuse the economics for a minute…

In the last two to three decades we have been moving more and more to a neoliberal world-view. There are a couple of ideas that are central to this:

  1. The importance of product is valued over the importance of process. So, for example, in our neoliberal society taking the time to explore ideas and learn how to think is no longer the focus of education. Instead, for students what matters is the certificate that will open doors to employment, and for universities it is being seen to produce graduates who will become good employees. Rather than preparing young people to be good citizens, it is preparing them to be part of the labour market.
  2. Things only have value if they can be quantified and sold. That is, everything is a product. And the more income they can make, the higher their value. So people who work with money, and make ever more money, are valued highly and given a high income. People who work with intangibles, such as those in the caring profession and in the arts, are not valued. (And yes, I know there are other dimensions to this, such as gender and historical context, but this is a blog post, not an essay, okay? I don’t have the space to go into all the other issues.)

Authors and other artists rank pretty low on both these factors. They have a very specific skill set, which includes being thoughtful observers and even critics of society. Not great for employability. And they don’t earn a lot of money. So unless they receive the golden tick of approval from those with money who decide what art is worthy of reward, and what art is not, they don’t hold much value in a neoliberal world.

So why write?

When your why becomes your survival strategy

I mean, it actually doesn’t make sense to be an author in a neoliberal society. You’re unlikely to make a living wage, and you’re not highly valued.  I’ve been asking myself this question a lot in the last year to be honest. Writing is hard work. It takes many, many hours to craft a book. It takes a lot of rejection and heartache to find a home for your novel. There are negative reviews, months when you look at your sales figures and want to weep, and the sense that you are a tiny voice amongst a swell of loud voices, failing magnificently at being noticed.

Yet every time I ask myself whether I should keep writing, a tiny voice inside me still answers ‘yes’. Some of the reason for that I’ve written about before. Making art is food for the creative soul. Sharing art is sending a message in a bottle to the world*. You may never know who will find it, or how it will change their life. Or you might. If you’re lucky.

But writing is also a subversive act. By spending all those hours on something creative, something that may never earn you more than one or two cents per hour (or less) you are standing against the voice of neoliberalism. You are saying you have worth regardless of income. (Personally, I think artists and carers give a lot more to society than bankers do.)

And by writing for the joy of crafting a book, rather than in hopes of being the next JK Rowling and being able to buy a palace somewhere, you are placing value on process, rather than on product. You are saying being creative matters, no matter what the outcome might be.

But most importantly, if, like me, you hate the philosophy behind neoliberalism, because you don’t want to be simply a product or a cog in the economy machine, the act of writing can be a survival strategy. Taking time to be an artisan, without thought for the outcome, immerses you in a different world, for a time. It can be a healing antidote to the harsh realities of the world. And that can give you the strength to keep going. The creative process has a magic all of its own.

That’s why.

* Recently I read Neil Gaiman’s new book, ‘Art matters’. He uses the same metaphor in that. Just to be clear – I wrote my post BEFORE I read the book.

For the Love of Art

For the Love of Art

art on wall of face with tearsArtists, whether writers, painters, sculptors or any other medium, are generally not paid well. This has been true throughout history. We know the image of the struggling writer starving in a garret so well it is almost a cliche. And the painterly genius who died in poverty. It’s part of the story we tell about artists. To create true art, the idea goes, we need suffering. Hunger is apparently a great motivator.

This story does artists a terrible disservice. No one does their best work when they are living with income security. Having to spend your time searching for income takes away from time making art. For many of the writers I know there is a constant battle in their lives, between time and money. They usually have enough of one, but not of the other. If they are earning money, they don’t have time to make art. If they have the time, they are struggling financially. But isn’t this the way it has always been, and will always be?

Is art worth less?

Meta-narratives are the stories that underpin society. They are big picture stories that shape how we think. The prevailing meta-narrative we live with in Western society is that the economy is more important than anything else. You can’t read the news without finding something about the economy, but what makes it a meta-narrative is the underlying message. In recent years that message has increasingly become that the value of something comes from its ability to generate income. Growing the economy (and making more money) is always put forward as a good thing, if not the ultimate goal.

Those who help grow the economy are rewarded. If they work in the field of finance, or manage a company to maximise its profits, they can receive huge salaries. Their contribution to society is unquestioned. Artists don’t grow the economy*. They often make very little money from their art. And under the current meta-narrative, this means their contribution is not valued.

What art contributes

The truth is somewhat different. Art and culture are enduring pillars of society. Wherever you go, around the world, you can see the art that has survived the centuries. We understand earlier civilisations through their art. Much of what art contributes to the world is intangible; it can’t be reduced to monetary worth. What it does is lift us out of our lives, let us see the world differently. It connects us to others, shows us how humanity. Entertains, provokes, enlightens, awes…  Without art, our lives would be very bleak.

Who does this narrative serve?

There have always been gatekeepers to the creative arts. These were once known as patrons. Now they have many different titles but they are always the ones who decide whether artists will be paid for their work or not. And since the ‘economy’ narrative places a low value on art, the gatekeepers don’t feel the need to pay them very much. In fact, the unspoken argument is often that artists do what they do for the love of it, so reimbursement doesn’t need to be that high.  Their reward is the joy of creating. There is a growing trend of asking creatives to produce something for ‘exposure’ or so they can ‘put it on their CV’.

This is great for those who want to buy the outcomes of creativity. They can get them cheap, but it isn’t great for the artist. What they create is not only the outcome of many hours work to produce that individual novel or painting or song, but also the result of many years of gaining mastery of their form.

So where to from here?

The economy meta-narrative, with its focus on ever-growing profits, has led to endless consumption and pushed us towards environmental disaster. We need to shift society’s values, to re-focus our sense of what is important. A new meta-narrative that valued art and saw that it should have a central place in life and culture, would be a great beginning. Maybe then artists would not be expected to do what they do simply for ‘love’, but would be paid a living wage. Imagine what a rich world we would live in if writers and painters, performers and sculptors, and others who contribute beauty to our world, had both the time and the money to create.

* (This meta-narrative is, by the way, outdated and inaccurate – arts events such as festivals and exhibitions bring significant income, although often the artists see little of it.)

Completing a Book Series

Completing a Book Series

Last week I wrote the final chapter of Pierrot’s Song, the last book in the Tales of Tarya series. The story is complete. Obviously I can’t say what happens, because spoilers, but in the nature of fantasy trilogies, every loose thread I could find has been woven in. Every character has reached some sort of conclusion. There is a resolution to the mystery that Mina uncovered. Mina, and those around her, can move on to new adventures.

Of course, at the moment this book is only a first draft, so I’m not setting it aside just yet – there will be a lot of editing ahead. But a wise author once told me to celebrate every achievement, and this is certainly one of them. Writing a story that is sustained over three books is definitely a marathon.

Long ago, when the stars still sang…

stars
Writing a novel is like catching stars.
Photo by Rakicevic Nevad (c/- Pexels).

I can’t really remember exactly when I began writing the Tarya series now. But it’s probably been around twenty years. In that time I have had children and watched them grow up. My eldest is about to start university. (I’m pretty sure I wasn’t long out of uni myself when I started writing Harlequin’s Riddle!) I’ve completed two degrees and several different certificates. I’ve moved house three times. Both parents and a brother have passed away, as well as others that I love and miss.

Twenty years is a quarter of a lifetime. And I have changed with the years’ passing. The person who began writing that first book is not the same person who is in my skin now. Life happens to you. Hope becomes a little worn down, some dreams are caught while others escape you…

Crafting a series

Over twenty years I’ve also developed as a writer. Writing is a craft that takes time to develop. There are layers upon layers of skills to learn. Putting sentences together is only the beginning. Learning about voice or tone or pace adds to your skills. Finding ways to weave theme and metaphor, emotion and humanity through a tale is another level of challenge.

Sustaining a story over a three book series requires its own skill set. Continuity becomes incredibly important. Keeping your world, places and characters consistent over an extended time takes good organisational skills. I have a Tarya master document that is broken up into many sections. The added complication with my books has been that I need to keep track not only of the real world, but of Tarya. There are seven ‘levels’ in Tarya, and each has its own characteristics, in terms of appearance but also in terms of what Mina (and others) can do there.

Resolving the mystery

One of the biggest challenges I faced over the three book series was writing the mystery. What Mina uncovers in Harlequin’s Riddle is only the beginning. She thinks she has uncovered what is going on and who is doing it. But as she discovers in Columbine’s Tale, the terrible secrets at the dark heart of her world can be traced back many years, and the perpetrator is not who she might think it is. The problem goes deeper than she imagined, and it will not be easy to solve. From the beginning, I knew what was going on (plotter, not pantser!), and my task was to give out snippets throughout the three books. Laying clues like crumbs, I had to pace them so readers got a taste of the bigger story, without giving away too much too soon.

bookThen, in the final book, I had to draw it all together. That’s been an interesting process. In the end I made myself a list with lots of instructions. “Make sure you …” “This has to happen …” I needed resolutions not just for the overall story, but for things like romances and individual character arcs. And even working from that list, I’m pretty sure I’ve missed something. So my next step will be to read all three books from beginning to end, making notes as I go. Finding all the threads that I think need resolving.  It won’t end there either. After the rewrites, I’ll give the Pierrot’s Song to beta-readers, and I’m sure they’ll tell me if I’ve missed something that needs resolution that I’ve missed.

The bittersweet of endings

As the end of the story drew closer, I found myself reluctant to sit at my desk and write. I didn’t want the story to end. But I knew it had to. All stories come to an end. It is the nature of stories that we have resolution. (Life is never so tidy!) Then, when I was nearly there, the last two chapters wrote themselves, taking on a momentum that was exhilarating. I felt like I was on a roller coaster as the last words fell onto the page.

Having finished the final chapter now, I have some of the feels, but I’m sure there’ll be a lot more later. It definitely feels like a great achievement to have completed a three book story, but I know there is still a lot of work ahead. Which means I don’t have to say goodbye to Mina and her companions quite yet. When I do, that will be a wrench. But for now, I have set the manuscript aside to gain distance. Then I’ll go back and polish it until it shines. Only then will I be leaving the world of Tarya. But perhaps only for a little while…