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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Truth is stranger than fiction

I’m not one of those lucky people who just sat down and wrote a book without any training. I dithered and procrastinated and raged and feared failure and came up with all manner of lovely dream-blocking strategies including serving up self-hate for not ‘just getting on with it’ in great dollopy portions way before I ever put pen to paper. My favourite way of upping the ante on true self-loathing was to go into our local library and read the first pages of books by people I was at university with. Long defensive conversations about why I hadn’t actually written a novel with people I’d told I was going to became another outlet for my creativity.
written a novel
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic

It seems astonishing to me now. If I’d used all that negative energy to sit my backside on a chair and snap up the laptop, I’d probably be about five novels further on. I still have moments when I sit there like a constipated cow, imagining all my peers with their fingers fairly flying over the keyboard, tapping out three thousand words a day while I look at a white screen and wonder if I’ll have a remotely entertaining thought again. Ever.
Like most things in my life, I’ve had to learn and then graft to make progress. Luckily, I discovered the online writing programme at the UCLA (University of California). It took me a good six months to enrol in case I was paying for proof that I was lacking the talent to do the thing I wanted most in the world. Happily, this turned out not to be the case. Aside from the lovely people I ‘met’ in my virtual classroom, the most fascinating thing I discovered was that whenever I added in something based on a true event, no one believed me. Of all the hundreds of events squeezed out of the fictional fantasy box in my aching brain, the minute I wrote about something real, it was as though everyone from Texas to California did a collective sniff and went, ‘Nah. That just wouldn’t happen.’

So these things are not going to appear in my books:

Last day in Sydney after six weeks writing and researching a guidebook. Ambling along Manly to Spit walk admiring the view. Man jumps out on me stark naked except for T-shirt over his head. (Frankly, the manhood was nothing to boast about, so I could see an argument for deploying the T-shirt elsewhere). Instead of running away, I shout and bellow until he is convinced I am more deranged than he is and runs for his life.

Win first prize at York Writing Festival for my novel’s opening line ‘I was wearing the wrong bra for sitting in a police cell’, then ditch fabulous line in final version of the book.

Live in Tuscany in isolated farmhouse in a field of sunflowers. Get back late one night to find house ransacked. Call local gamekeeper who bursts in with his pistol, slamming open doors and swinging into rooms, James Bond-style.

Take bus to the jungle in Thailand. Follow small boy on a moped. He beckons to me to cross the river. I look for bridge, boat, sigh, then lift my rucksack onto my head.

Children sit down without arguing and get on with homework. Son gaily accepts that as he is only thirteen, 15 certificate games and films are not for him. Daughter accepts that as son is two years older, it is perfectly reasonable for him to go to bed much later.

I’ll leave it to you to sort the fact from fiction…

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

From Open Mind to Narrow Mind...and back again

One of the characters in my next book says ‘Over time my open mind had become a narrow passageway through which I forced the occasional independent thought.’
As I wrote that, I started thinking how true that is. When I was nineteen, I made a loose arrangement to meet a bunch of mates in Turkey. Not Bournemouth, not Tunbridge Wells, but Turkey. We announced our arrival in Istanbul by leaving a note on a pinboard in a pre-agreed cafĂ© with an understanding that we’d come back at four o’clock every day until we all found each other. Miraculously, we did.
In the same year, I had a friend studying in Padova, Italy. Faced with a week with nothing to do during the holidays, thought I’d pop over and see her…a mere 24-hour journey on ferries and overnight trains. We didn’t have mobile phones back then and it was unthinkable to shell out for a telegram so I turned up on spec at her Catholic College only to discover that she’d gone off hitching on the Ligurian coast. Again, I left a note under her door, parked myself in a local youth hostel and ate ice cream until she turned up.
Would it be very rude to pop
round in May 2014?
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at
At no time do I recall being bothered about the ‘What ifs?’ that seem to plague me now just dealing with some trivial, every week occurrence that doesn’t involve running the gauntlet of weirdos on overnight trains, sleeping with my passport stuffed down my shirt and half my travellers’ cheques in my bra. 
Let’s take the son’s rugby match. Cue an almighty kerfuffle. Will there be traffic on the motorway? Let me just double check the letter/website/son for starting time…forget son, he doesn’t know, why doesn’t he know? Didn’t the teacher say what time you needed to be there? We don’t want to be the ones holding up the bus. I wish he didn’t play prop…I hope he doesn’t injure his neck…and fifty thousand other things that could go wrong in the space of three hours on a Saturday in Surrey. Instead, all those years ago, I had a firm belief that all would turn out as it should be. How can I get that back? Or do you have to not have children to retain that insouciance of yesteryear?

You didn't expect me to come to dinner
THIS Saturday? Try October, darling.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
Forget the spontaneity of trotting off to Turkey via Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, staying with random people we met on buses and in the street on the way (please don’t let my children EVER want to travel, please let them stay safe at home, reading books in the kitchen where I can see them). Somewhere between twenty and forty, I lost the ability to pop round to people’s houses unannounced. I cannot remember the last time I turned up at someone’s home for a cup of tea, because I was just passing. No coffee or chocolate HobNob goes unplanned these days. (How about a week on Saturday? Could you fit it in after boot camp, before Olivia’s violin/mandarin lesson, after the girls come back from athletics but before the netball match, in between your facial and the taking back of the wrong-sized FitFlops?) Trying to gather a posse of mates for a last-minute barbecue on the one sunny Saturday in July seems to engender the same amount of flurry and panic as suggesting we all go trekking in the Himalayas with a pair of Jesus sandals and a can of Coke.
So, in an effort to stretch the mind to a stage where a spontaneous thought might be able to squeeze through without the aid of an ice pick and miner’s helmet, I’m thinking of auditioning for a local theatre production. The narrow-mindedness of the son (who screamed when I told him) and the husband (who said, ‘You can’t put that on the internet!’) prevents me from saying what I’ll be auditioning for, but know, dear reader, that my mind, hitherto demonstrating all the restricted thought room of a straw is about to become a huge gaping wind tunnel through which all manner of wide-reaching, extreme and random notions might blow…