Inspiration: Getting in the spirit

When the creative juices are running low, I often spend a little bit of time visiting some of the people, places and things which have inspired me to write over the years.  Obviously these are very personal to me, but they might help you think about some of your own.

Ballet ShoesI am adopted.  When I first discovered Noel Streatfeild‘s classic Ballet Shoes as a Tweener I became enthralled in the world of possibilities and creativity.  Of the three sisters I can most closely relate to Pauline, but there is also a little bit of Petrova and Posy in me.  Perhaps, if G.U.M. had brought home a fourth Fossil, she would have been called Philippa, and she would have been a writer!

This book still captivates me to this day.  Not only does it inspire me to “save the penny and walk” wherever I can, it also reminds me that our destiny is never defined by our past, and in the present the opportunities and possibilities are ours for the taking. There literally are no limits as to what I can do.

 

Deia MajorcaLucia Graves, daughter of the poet Robert Graves, and author in her own right, is a friend of the family. As a result we spent a number of summers in the delightful village of Deià, Majorca. Deià was a hotbed of creative people, and I remember being surrounded by actors, artists, dancers, writers and musicians, all of which have inspired me over the years to find my own creative voice and expression.

I get disheartened with the cult of celebrity these days, where someone becomes famous for being on a reality television show, and it’s newsworthy to report that a celebrity was seen wearing a bikini. To me it’s not about whether or not someone is famous, but rather whether or not they ooze creative energy and inspiration. When I am surrounded by such people I tend to ooze that same creative energy myself.  I shall always be thankful when it happens, and Deja is one such place.

Watford Palace TheatreAs a teenager I became a member of the youth section of Watford Palace Theatre. It was referred to as Theatreyard, and I spent many a happy Wednesday evening improvising, learning lines, and pretending to be someone else. My most memorable appearance was as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ll always remember going into my dressing room, which had previously been occupied by Jane Lapotaire, only to find a mouldy tea bag in a dirty pot!

Michael Attenborough was the Artistic Director during this time and he was a magnet for some incredible talent.  I saw plays with Jane Lapotaire, Roger Rees, Mel SmithGriff Rhys Jones, Rik Mayall, Simon Cadell, to name but a few.  As I sat in the dress circle, eyes wide with wonder at their impeccable timing and delivery, I didn’t wish I could be them, I wished I could write for them.  I never did show the leaders of Theatreyard any of my ideas. If I had I expect they would have supported and encouraged me. A missed opportunity perhaps, but also a very good reminder not to hide what I have written but to put it out there and see what happens.

J K RowlingI couldn’t possible write a blog about inspirational people, places and things without including J.K. Rowling. This is an early picture of her when she still wrote in a coffee shop. I like it because it reminds me where she came from, a place I can certainly relate to.

What she has taught me is that it is possible to write in the midst of adversity, to never give up trying, and that the only limits are the limits of our imagination. I have absolutely no desire to write like her, despite loving her work.  Instead I want to find my own voice, and help it to sing.  I equally have no desire to write about witches and wizards, despite being entertained for hours by the Harry Potter novels. Rather, I have felt inspired by her to dream up my own kind of world that I would like to live in, and hope that maybe, one day, some of my readers would like to join me there too.

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Writing: It All Begins with a Slab of Marble

I absolutely love hopping on a Twitter two or three times a day to check in with all my #amwriting colleagues from across the globe.  They really motivate me with their anecdotes, quotes and out and out enthusiasm. Occasionally I even get to help someone in return.

This has happened a few times over the last week, and a similar theme seems to be emerging that others have found useful. I thought I’d blog about it and share it with you good people in the hopes it will help you too.

The message is simple. The Venus de Milo didn’t start out looking like this:

Michaelangelos Angel

In actual fact it started out looking something like this:

Marble slab

As Michelangelo is quoted as saying, “I saw the angel in the marble, and carved him until I set him free.”  I believe that some of the best literature has been carved out a whole pile of words that have been chipped away at in order to reveal the masterpiece underneath.

Keeping this in mind, there are some important lessons to be learned from this:

  • Writer’s Block – can be a thing of the past. It’s not that you can’t find words, any more than Michelangelo was unable to source marble, it’s that you are looking too hard for the right ones.  Just verbally throw up all over the page, even if you swear at it, and I promise you, eventually the ideas and the right words will come.
  • Editing – The single most important thing about being an author isn’t even the writing itself; it’s the editing.  It may sound tedious, but it really needn’t be.  It’s running your expert fingers along the curves and crevasses of your work, chipping off the unnecessary and polishing the dull until it shines. Good editing can be the difference between the Venus de Milo and something you bought at your local garden centre.

I have found that I cannot edit directly on the screen.  I print it out each time and comb through it with a red pen (I have quite a collection). I correct typos, cut the unnecessary, re-phrase the awkward, and juggle the order so it scans. Sometimes it can take as many as five drafts for me to be happy enough with it to move on, but it really is worth it. I get an enormous sense of satisfaction when it’s done.

So, let’s all start throwing down some marble slabs, and set free a whole host of angels from within!

 

Some advice from Mrs Ridgeley

In my last two years in junior school I was fortunate enough to have an amazing teacher.  Her name was Mrs Ridgeley, and if that sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because her son, Andrew, was in the 80’s pop group Wham! with George Michael.

As exciting as it was to listen to their records in the classroom, and to see the joy and pride on Mrs Ridgeley’s face, the lasting impression this wonderful lady had on me was one of creativity and hard work.

There was never a dull moment in her lessons.  She brought imagination and enthusiasm to each task.  I learned about the political bias between different newspapers, how to draw a daffodil, who the Normans were, and some basic words of French.  But I also learned about life.

One subject I particularly treasured was “Creative Writing”. As I was going through an old chest recently I came upon my creative writing books and Mrs Ridgeley’s words leapt out of the page at me.

 

“Some very good ideas here, Susanna, but you could have made it a “top-class” story by using a little more thought, imagination, and effort.  Read my notes – it will help you improve to become a really good writer – you could be, but you’ve got to work harder at it.!”

Sadly, Mrs Ridgeley is no longer with us, but these words from beyond the grave are teaching me even to this day.  I am a natural thinker, just like the Rodin statue, and yet I hardly ever give myself enough time to just think. When I do, good things happen.  It is good to be reminded of this.

Until recently I was afraid of where my imagination would take me.  I suffered from a lot of nightmares as a child, and still have them today.  If I give my mind free reign I am scared that I will end up in a very dark place.  Yet when I do play inside my head I find beautiful things, like the map of Freodholm I have shown to you before.  Mrs Ridgeley reminds me that my imagination is my trusted friend, who will take me to amazing places I’ve never been before.

Finally there’s the issue of effort.  Part of my problem is that I am a perfectionist, and want to be brilliant at something first time round.  One thing I have learned from my knitting group is that honing a craft can take years.  It’s only when I look back at the mistakes I have made that I realise how far I have come.  Writing is a journey, not a destination, and I just need to keep plodding along.

So thank you Mrs Ridgeley, for your creative thought, imagination, and hard work. Above all else, thank you for your unending patience. I write today because of you.

Writing Projects

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As part of the writing group I belong to, we take it in turns to set ourselves a project once a month. I must confess that I have found this a challenge. For starters we were simply given the words “In the name…” with which we had to begin our work. It could be an article, short story, poem, or even chapter in a novel, but it had to follow this opening.

I wasted valuable time trying to be too original. I was determined not to follow “In the name…” with “of the” which contours up religious or royal images for me and seemed too predictable. Eventually I stopped worrying about how original I was and just started writing. What resulted was the following poem entitled “Watling Chase”. I hope you enjoy it.

In the name of all that is good and true
I’m writing this letter to implore you
Please stop with your building, your filling of space.
Instead let us celebrate Watling Chase.

The orchard, the paths, the fields and the trees,
The rabbits, the horses, the lambs, all of these
Are precious and fragile and can’t be replaced
Let’s arrest brick and mortar with all due haste.

Come sit on my bench and admire the view
Tune in to the birdsong, tune in to you!
Each one of us is a part of the whole
Freedom to breathe should be our goal

Breathe in the fresh air, be still and stand
For all that brings life across our land.

Of course it’s hardly likely to make me a candidate for the next Poet Laureate, but it was, in the end, a really enjoyable exercise. It got me writing in a genre I haven’t attempted since I was a teenager, about a subject I am passionate about but would have overlooked in my business. It also means that I am going back to my novel with a fresh pair of eyes. I suppose it’s a bit like the mint ice cream between sumptuous courses in an extravagant dinner. It clears the palette and helps me enjoy what comes next. Ever thought of doing the same? If you have, what was it like for you?

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Be Original

Charlotte BronteThe first time I ever read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte I was thirteen years old.  I devoured it whilst on holiday in Spain, and hardly saw the sun as a result.  The next time I picked it up was when studying for G.C.S.E. English Literature at sixteen.  My rebellious self had decided I wasn’t particularly enamoured with all of my teacher’s selections, so I obtained a copy of the syllabus, and was delighted to find Jane Eyre on the list.  This wayward streak in me didn’t seem to do me any harm. I got an A.

You would have thought that by now I would have tired of reading the immortal lines, “Reader, I married him.” At the beginning of the final chapter, but it seems it still had the power to make my heart soar.  We studied Jane Eyre once again as part of my B.A.  And then, to top it all, I decided to write my undergraduate dissertation on The Struggle Between Passion and Duty in the Life and Novels of Charlotte Bronte, a copy of which still resides at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire.

It is perhaps bizarre when wading through the countless articles, essays and books on this very same subject to think that back then no one had touched on this dichotomy in Charlotte’s life, but try as I might I had been unable at the time to find anything on the subject.  Naturally, as a research project, this made it both exciting and frustrating.  What I did instead was read what she wrote, read what was written about her, and devoured what she read, including a treasure of a book entitled The Doctrine of the Passions Explained and Improved to Which Is Added Evidences of the Christian Religion by Isaac Watts.

Suffice to say, as much as it was possible, and within my own limited academic capabilities, this was an original piece of work, and I have been chasing that same wave ever since.

Of course there is “nothing new under the sun”, and I doubt I was the absolute first person to come up with this idea back in 1994, but the important thing was that I wasn’t trying to copy anyone.  Now as I sit and write my debut novel I’m applying those same principals.  I admire other writers, and am hugely inspired by them, but I don’t write like them.  It has been hugely important to me to find my own voice and my own story.

Agatha ChristieI recently spoke to a lady who works in the publishing industry and she gave me some very useful advice.  She said that when I write my letter to agents and publishers I should never compare myself to someone else.  I am never going to be the next Charlotte Bronte, Agatha Christie, or J.K. Rowling, but I might just be the next Susanna MacLeod.

Equally it is vitally important to be a trend-setter, rather than a trend follower.  Agents and publishing companies were swamped with stories about magic after Harry Potterand vampires after The Vampire Diaries.  Equally right now everyone seems to be writing erotica, since the success of 50 Shades of Grey.  But these trends have already been set, at least for our generation.  What will come next I wonder?  What new voice and new worlds are inside you and me that have yet to emerge?  How are you unique and original?

Yes, it is possible to improve on something that someone else has already done, and do it better.  But it is much more likely that your own, unique ideas will bear fruit in your work.  Don’t be sheep and follow the crowd.  Be a trailblazer and see where those uncharted paths might take you.  I for one am enjoying the adventure!

 

Community Drives Creativity

Every morning, before I sit down to write, I make myself a piping hot mug of caramel hot chocolate, and sift through tweets and FB posts.  More and more I have made a bee-line for one particular group on Twitter who gather around the hashtag 12399438_10153297370191961_1530400782_n#amwriting.  Started by Johanna Harness back in 2009, this is an incredible group of individuals who all count writing as their profession. All over the world they get up each morning and begin their day of words counts, drafts, timelines, character sketches, letters to editors etc, and they tweet about it as they go.

Writing can be an incredibly solitary occupation; a fact which is something of an oxymoron when you consider the fact that writers are often fantastic observers of people.  They are frequently able to put themselves in the shoes of another, and paint pictures with words of what life can be like through another’s eyes.  But it can be hard to attempt to do this entirely alone.  As John Donn famously said, “no man is an island unto himself.”

It has been a wonderful experience for me to discover that I am part of a community much bigger than myself; to hear from published authors and novices like myself, of their daily struggle to put pen to paper and tease out of their overactive imaginations new frontiers previously hidden worlds, and, at times, colourful characters.  I have already learned a great deal about the writing process itself from my fellow tweeters, and have started to engage in a small amount of conversation myself.

Even when I am struggling to get a sentence out, or am wrestling with which direction to take a plot line, I can pop on to Twitter and find words of encouragement, wisdom and support.  I think I can honestly say that since finding this community, and others like it, my productivity and creativity has increased exponentially. I am a-muse-d by it all, and can’t wait to see where it will lead.

So whether you are a struggling writer in a loft in New York City, a dreaming poet in the Australian Outback, an established author in a villa in Spain, or like me, a newbie, from a cosy corner of England, come join the party that is #amwriting and see where your creativity leads you from there.  Community drives creativity.  If you are a writer this is one community you will not want to miss.

A Rose by Any Other Name…

Dark Red RoseOscar Wilde once said, “it is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things.”

In the story of Adam and Eve, in the book of Genesis, God parades all the creatures he has made in front of them and gets them to name them. You get a sense that there is a tremendous amount of joy to be found in being able to find the right name for the right creature. The naming of things is an intrinsic part of creation and creativity. In us, is a natural desire to call something by name.

The first thing I ever remember naming was ‘pink rabbit’. Perhaps not the most original of names, none-the-less, it gave me great joy to be able to choose it. 40+ years on, I still have ‘pink rabbit’ and love her as much as I did when I was a small child, learning to speak.

Since then, I have named countless cars, my first being ‘Slurp’, partly due to the numberplate, and partly its penchant for guzzling gas. My latest is ‘Percy’ a.k.a ‘His Grace’. It’s a family joke, but Percy is also a Polo and a little bit of alliteration never did anyone any harm.

We name pets, vehicles, cuddly toys, houses, towns. We name everything on the periodic table of the elements, and even every star in the sky. We even name ourselves. There are a multitude of baby naming websites to consult if you are expecting a child. I should imagine that at times the choice can be overwhelming. To name a human being is, I believe, the most precious of all names.

And then there is the world of creative literature. I find it fascinating studying how others have chosen names for the characters in their books. J.K. Rowling is particularly talented at this. No name is casual, and no one comes by their name by accident. For example, imagine my excitement when I discovered that Sirius Black and his family are all named after stars. He is, of course, the ‘Dog Star’, which is why he turns into a black dog as an animagus. But I was once looking through a list of named stars in our universe, and even Belletrix is one of them.

So how do we name things in our writing? Where do we begin? It is my belief, that the name chooses the person, place, or thing, and not the other way round. For example, when naming a character in my novel I ask myself the following:

  • Is the person conventional, and do they have a conventional name?
  • What were their parents like?
  • What are their dominant personality traits?
  • Does their name have a hidden meaning?

When I have a shortlist, I speak the names out loud to test them. If they conjure up and image of the person I want to create then I sit with that name for a few days. Instinct tells me when I have hit on the right name, as I feel a tremendous sense of peace about it.

Whether it be the colours of the rainbow or a sailing boat in the harbour there are no shortage of things to name. What’s in a name? You decide!

The Only Limits are the Limits of Your Imagination

When starting to think about about my novel it wasn’t a person, an event, or a particular storyline that came to mind, but rather a place. Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 once said, “the only limits are the limits of your imagination, dream up the kind of world you want to live in, dream out loud, at high volume.” Whilst I’m not sure that the world I have created in my novel is exactly at “high volume”, it most definitely is the kind of world that I would like to live in. As I come back to it, day after day, to sketch out characters and places, and to tell my story, I do so with excitement and joy, and an overarching feeling that I am coming home.

Where did I start? With what I love! As you have probably realised, I have a passion for crafts, and in particular knitting. It is therefore absolutely essential that there be a wool shop at the heart of my fictional world. Drawing from images on Pinterest, memories from various wool shops I have visited over the years, and things I would long to see but have yet to experience, I was able to sketch out “Butterworth’s Wool Shop”. When I gave it to my friend to read, she replied, ‘I want to go there!’ This reaction was just what I was looking for, because, quite frankly, so do I!

Using this method, I have bit by bit been able to sketch together a picture of an idyllic, but not utopian, village in England, that is a symbiosis between everything I like about the past and present, coupled with what I imagine would be great to see in the future. Why not? It’s my world! It’s a place I long for, and love to return to, and one day, when I finish it, I hope you will too!IMG_3004

Being the extremely visual person that I am, I have also found it useful to draw a map of the village. It is A2 in size, and is tacked to my wall so I can constantly refer to it as I write. I went through a number of drafts to get there, and tried a combination of software and freehand, and finally opted for this hand-drawn, and coloured-in image. It was amazing how it just started to take shape and now I couldn’t imagine the village looking any different.

What kind of world would you want to live in?

What kind of place would it bring you the most amount of joy / excitement / interest to see in your virtual world?

If you could live in one of the following places where would it be:

– A magical kingdom?
– A desert island?
– A busy city?
– On a mountain?

Does your character start in this place, end up there, or pass through there on the way somewhere else?

These are some of the questions I have been asking myself as I have worked. My world is not the kind of place that dishes out an endless stream of harsh realities, dotted with toxic characters, and never-ending doom. It is a place of hope, a place of healing, a place in which to kick back in your slippers, sup on a glass of wine, and enjoy life for once. Not realistic enough? It’s not meant to be! It is a place that we can but aspire to go in the limitless expanse of our imagination, to take refuge from what life flings at us. The only limits are the limits of our imagination. Where does your’s take you?