Paperclip Girl loses the plot (and her character)

This is the time of year when the high wire act of balancing teaching and writing becomes most tricky.  End-of-semester submissions have been handed in with another batch due at the beginning of May.  This means I’m going to be marking, immersed in other people’s writing, for around six weeks.  In addition to this, there are several deadlines for short story competitions coming up, competitions I’d like to enter (and win, it goes without saying).

images-2Now, I’m a pretty organised person, very good at setting my own deadlines and sticking to them.  While on the MA for Creative Writing at BSU my organisational skills earned me the nickname Paperclip Girl, so yes, I’m organised, some would say to the point of control freakery.

Over the past few weeks my aim has been to get two stories out to competitions by the time I started marking.  Very doable, you would think.  Just two stories.  And I was half way there with the first one workshopped, redrafted and sent out by the beginning of April.  Tick in the box (I love ticking things off a list almost as much as making the list itself), and Paperclip Girl ruled supreme.

And then I came to workshop the second story, just a week or so ago.  The story itself has been troubling me for years.  Or I’ve been troubling it, depending on your perspective.  I knew it still wasn’t right but I couldn’t diagnose what the problem was.  So I did a rewrite, hoping my (relatively new) workshop buddy would say yep, just rework this bit, add some sparky dialogue there, cut the final line and you’re good to go.

But no.  The feedback was more damaging than that and particularly vexing because even though this w/s relationship is new, his judgement has been impeccable so far.  So I knew deep down (and all you writers out there know I mean deep, deep down, at the point beyond your soul where you hide the things you don’t want to acknowledge in safe-like compartments with combination locks), I knew he was right.

The diagnosis, that the main character does not fit the writing style, is spot on.  This is why the story hasn’t been working.  For years.  Two fundamental elements of the story don’t belong together.  You would have thought after twenty years of writing I would have noticed this basic problem, it’s nuts and bolts, elementary school level, surely?  That’s probably true, but while it’s frustrating in the extreme it’s also what I love about writing.  I will never know everything.  I will always be learning.

So the result of my w/s buddy’s annoyingly astute observation is that Paperclip Girl’s schedule is now seriously out of whack.  What this story needs isn’t just a leisurely bit of tinkering over a nice cappuccino and a chocolate croissant.  This requires a major rethink that will involve multiple walks, deep baths and several train journeys of significant length because basically, my main character has to be a different person.

There is a small, I mean tiny, possibility my OCD-style schedule will stay on track (this is Paperclip girl trying to assert her authority here), because I’m about to leave on a long journey today, in fact.  I’m going on my first writing weekend in about ten years with the Wordsmiths in Herefordshire (http://www.thewordsmiths.org), and I’ll be holed up in a beautiful house surrounded by beautiful gardens.  So I’ve been asking myself if I can use that long journey to figure out my character?  Can I spend those free hours in the afternoons to shut myself away in a lofty room or a quiet nook in the garden?

It’s possible, but in truth I know what will happen.  My good intentions will disappear as soon as I get there.  I’ll be surrounded by other writers, I’ll be having writerly conversations, I’ll be thinking and breathing writing, and my character won’t get a look in because I’m having such a good time, meeting some really interesting people while eating an awful lot of cake. Writing Girl is stronger than Paperclip Girl, and if they ever get involved in an arm wrestle, I know which one I’d back.

images-1 19.37.07So I’ve been mulling this over for the past week: marking, writing, cake, competitions, cake, weekend away, cake… trying to look for a way that I can do it all.  And then I remembered why I’m writing this blog.  I’m supposed to be embracing these conflicts to make the balancing easier. The centre of gravity, remember?  So I looked at the bigger picture and decided to push my main character to the back of my mind (and Paperclip Girl off a cliff).  The brain has a nifty way of figuring out problems while you’re not thinking about them, so while I’m driving on the motorway, having wonderful conversations with fellow writers, eating delicious cake and then getting back to marking, my sub-conscious will be doing all the hard work for me. And then maybe, when I do finally return to the story, my main character will be there, waiting to tell me who he is.

Either way it’s a win win situation… did I mention the cake?

Living Amongst The People

images 19.44.56I’ve been waiting to watch Silver Linings Playbook for a while now, and not just because it stars Bradley Cooper, honest.  This is a mainstream, successful Hollywood film that deals with the subject of mental illness.  It’s unusual, to say the least, to have a fetching male lead as well as the lovely Jennifer Lawrence exploring an issue that makes people so uncomfortable.  We’ve had films like Girl, Interrupted and A Beautiful Mind, both based on true stories and showing the destruction mental illness can cause, but SLP is different.  Two young and attractive lead characters.  A story that has their relationship rather than their illness at the centre.  And it has humour.  Yes, mental illness can be destructive, but as the film depicts it can also be enlightening, creative, manageable and yes, funny.

All this makes me wonder if mental illness is suddenly… dare I say it… sexy?

You’d be right to question if this is the best way to discuss the subject, but it gives me heart that such a film has been made, awarded an Oscar for Lawrence’s performance, and talked about by the critics and viewing public alike.  It means we’ve come a long way in our understanding of mental health problems.  Once upon a time, not so long ago, people were forcibly removed from their families and hidden away in institutions, subjected to barbaric treatments and sometimes imprisoned for the rest of their lives.  Now we have glossy, sensitive and uplifting films.  That’s got to be progress, not just in the treatment of the conditions themselves, but also in the way we treat individuals.

It also gives me heart that I may not have wasted the past three years writing a novel that explores the effect of mental illness on a family (with a thriller plot aimed at young adults).  I sometimes get the feeling I don’t choose the subjects I write about, they choose me, but I have to say that even when I started writing this book I felt uneasy.  I knew I was taking a risk, and the eight drafts it took to get the story right didn’t do anything to lessen my unease.  The fact is that mental illness is the kind of subject matter publishers shy away from.  They’ve always been a conservative bunch but recently this has become more obvious, opting for safe books, often with the promise of a series on subjects that already have a following (I’m talking vampires, zombies and werewolves here).  Ultimately, it’s all about the bottom line.

But regardless of those niggling little prods that tell me I should be writing something fluffy and fun and commercial, my dark side always wins the day. Mimi Thebo talks very personally about death in her latest post (http://myglamorousliterarylife.wordpress.com), and how we used to see death more openly.  When she was a child the elderly carried on living with their families so the inevitable decline was there for everyone to see, and when she was taken to see an open coffin she noticed how ‘undramatic it was, how normal the deceased looked’ (go and read it, she’s great).  And she’s right, nowadays we shield our children from such experiences, we put our elderly relatives into a home, pack ourselves off to have some plastic surgery and pretend it will never happen to us.

I think the opposite has happened with mental health over the past few years.  It’s still a subject that people find difficult to talk about, not least because it’s difficult to understand, all those genetic influences, neurotransmitters that refuse to behave and random trigger factors, but we do see and hear about it more, whether it’s a friend or neighbour, the person acting differently on the street, or a character in a film, we no longer hide people in dark and dusty institutions and wait for them to die.

Silver Linings Playbook gives me courage.  The publishers may be conservative but I’m not, which is why I’m going to resist the urge to spend a small fortune on postage and packaging just to fill up the slush piles.  Instead I’m going to publish the novel as an ebook this year under the title The Big Deep.  That way it won’t be swallowed up by a dark and dusty institution that wants everyone to be the same, it will be out there, living amongst the people.

Gifts from students

One of my all time favourite books (I’m talking top three here) was recommended to me by a student.  The book is ‘House of Leaves‘, by Mark Z. Danielewski and is hard to describe, it’s so complex and mind-bending.  All I can say is whenever I meet someone who’s read it (which is rare), we settle down for a conversation with hushed awe.

Cover of "House of Leaves"
Cover of House of Leaves

I am recommending this book to others all the time, acting like it’s my discovery and I’m so cool and clever to know about it, but deep down I know it was gifted to me by someone far cooler and cleverer than me. Students seem to have a wealth of knowledge about obscure and experimental books.  Another is ‘When I Was Five I Killed Myself‘, by Howard Buten, and ‘The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart‘, by Mathias Malzieu (a neat little gem of a book that won’t be obscure for long, they’re making it into a film).  I am rarely disappointed by these recommendations and am always jotting down notes on stories and writers that are new to me.  Yes, I’m the teacher which means I’m supposed to know everything but in a whispered aside, I don’t.  Shocking, I know.

Anyway, this is what I love about teaching. Every year my own reading goes off in a different direction because a student has talked passionately and convincingly about a writer or book in class, sometimes even shedding new light on my past reading.  Here are a couple of things my students have gifted to me this year:

1. Robert Hass.  A poet of tender and acute insight.  My favourite poem from ‘The Apple Trees At Olema” is ‘Variations on a Passage in Edward Abbey’, where he equates the movement of a sand dune to the feelings of grief.  I haven’t tackled ‘My Mother’s Nipples’ yet, so can’t comment.

2.  An astute insight into the short story ‘Boxes’ by Raymond Carver:  of course the protagonist can only become a man and succeed in his own relationship when he lets his mother make her own choices. This gets to the truth of his journey.  I’ve been discussing this story for four years in class, and it took a student more plugged in than me to hold up the light and show me the way.

3.  An anthology called ‘Telling Tales’ that integrates my student’s stories with illustrations by children (http://tellingtalesanthology.wordpress.com).  A group of writers with a clear vision and the determination to carry it out no matter what the obstacles (even a whale decorated with a snowman).

4.  ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’, by Jeanette Winterson.  A bible on why we tell stories and how they can be woven by real experience.

5.  Important information for any teacher, old or new — rice crispy cakes really are the best end-of-semester Easter treat.

apple treesimages366497

Of course this is not a comprehensive list and the semester isn’t over yet, but this is a thank you to all the students who continue to inspire me, and finally, thank you for the rice crispy cakes, there’s nothing quite like a sustained sugar rush to get a class rolling.

The things that scare you…

A couple of weeks ago I bumped into an ex-student at a seminar run by the Higher Education Academy.  I taught her as an undergraduate on a module where writing out of your comfort zone and experimentation was encouraged.  She told me I gave her two pieces of advice that she’s never forgotten and now passes on to her own students.  For the life of me I can’t remember what the first nugget of wisdom was, but the second was to write about the things that scare you.  She said she’d done this and now she can write about anything.

This made me realise how crippling fear can be.  There is an element of fear in both writing and teaching; whatever your level of experience you are at the mercy of your students, your memory, your imagination, and for me that lack of control is what brings on those middle-of-the-night brain rushes that are the equivalent to five espressos.  But I also know that if I didn’t have that anxiety I’m probably not doing it right.  As Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Something that often gives me the midnight frights is the thought that juggling teaching and writing means I’m shockingly awful at both.  I’ve been battling with this high wire act for six years now, feeling like writing and teaching are at opposite ends of the pole, always worrying about one while I’m doing the other.  But I’ve recently realised something.  It finally occurred to me that for six years, I have been doing both and my centre of gravity will be greater if I bring them together, accept that they depend on one another and embrace the fact that I’m so lucky to be able think about/talk about/write about writing every single day, even if I am trying to balance on a wire while I’m doing it.

So this is what this blog is going to be about.  Teaching and writing and all the madness in between.  I’ll write about campus life, books and stories, things that inspire me, things that make me want to give up and become a waitress.  Any excuse to do some writing really.

And while I anticipate the next batch of submissions to mark, I hold onto the fact that I have a whole list of new writers, insights and ideas that I’ve gained from students this year, a list that will be even longer by the end of the semester.  I love a good list, but that will have to wait until my next post because right now I’ve got a rare couple of hours free, so I’m going to settle down on the sofa, tell the fear to get lost, and finish that short story that’s finally starting to come together.