Last year I overdosed on new year resolutions. Within a self-imposed boot camp for the bonus years, I set myself 12 tasks. I thought they were separate tasks but they turned out to be entangled and synergistic. I expected them to be pretty easy but they turned out to be rebellious, recalcitrant and complicated.
To find out how I’m going with these tasks (in brief, so far it’s a fail), you might like to check out the last two posts on my boot camp blog.
I wish I had a mansion in Remuera for every time someone asked me this question: “Where do you get your ideas from?”
Usually the answer is — “I don’t know! My head is teeming with ideas. Isn’t yours?”
I think a head teeming with ideas is normal. The difference is that a writer has to trust those ideas. To be curious, run after them, tussle with them, stare at them from every angle, and find the process utterly fascinating.
New writers are inclined to distrust their perfectly good ideas, dismissing them as feeble instead of playing with them until they develop into something exciting, something unique.
In the case of my novel Humming, the core question is very easy to answer. No mystery! I got all the ideas for Humming from an 18-month sojourn in Golden Bay, Nelson, New Zealand! The village where I lived, Puponga, is that brown corner just at the base of the long arm of Farewell Spit. It’s a spectacular, strange, remote place with a unique topography, drenched in atmosphere and crammed with fascinating people.
When you see the images in the PDF below, I hope you’ll see what I mean.
This is certainly a book for the bonus years, because it’s about two people turning 50, one rather flamboyantly, one more tentatively. Ivan the narcissistic artist prefers disasters to happiness, and the more the merrier. He believes that happiness after 50 is impossible by definition, and that he is the only person in the world distinguished by the malady of aging. Boring old Jane chips away at problems, saves a colony of native snails and surprises everyone, especially herself.
I am pretty sure that you will recognise one or more of these characters. Humming was written 14 years ago but people still tell me they “know” one of the characters. And dreamy idyllic beautiful remote places still attract strange and brilliant characters, rare creatures, and mysterious noises that only some can hear.
Why authors don’t murder for reviews
Please let me know what you think of Humming — preferably as a little review on the Amazon page. Authors are hungry for reviews. We need reviews. We would eat rats’ kidneys for reviews.
In the old days, we might discreetly murder the author of a bad review. Not me, you realise: I’m a vicar’s daughter and I was raised on Thou Shalt Not Kill (Human Beings). But other writers, especially crime writers, had no such scruples. No more,, my lips are sealed.
Today, the reviewer’s life is safe—it’s sacrosanct. Today, when you hear a writer screaming “Look! This guy hated my book!” it’s not a scream of rage. It’s a scream of triumph. “One person actually read my book and typed some words about it! Hallelujah!”
When Humming was first published, every major newspaper and magazine in the country published a review. (The country being New Zealand.) Publishing has changed dramatically as you know. Fewer publishers — most have merged or gone bust. Fewer books — a monthly catalogue of new books has shrunk to one or two pages. And fewer reviews.
Like most writers I have drifted to Kindle. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s social, it’s empowering.
For the first time in years, possibly ever, I’m having Christmas Day alone. Stop — don’t feel sorry for me! No sympathy is required.
Until 6.30pm on Christmas Day, it’ll just be me at home alone, apart from a phone call or two. (Short interruption right now while I receive a text and a photo of daughter and grandson playing on a wild beach — see? I’m not abandoned.)
Maybe I’ll go for a walk or a swim or sing carols in church or go climb a tree. Then in the evening I’ll go to my friend’s bed and breakfast for a buffet meal. This may sound bleak, like a city mission meal for the homeless, but the B&B is a lovely place and dinner will be congenial and delicious.
Habits — love them, fear them
Christmas is a gorgeous time in our family. In recent years I’ve usually been with family in a beautiful spot near Nelson. But who knows — that particular pattern may never re-occur, and that’ll be fine.
I like habits, and I like habits to be disrupted. Otherwise when you’ve made the same choice three times, it’s tempting to see this as not a just a habit but a sacred tradition, a divine right! Then Christmas can become a burden and no fun any more.
The family reunion
By (breakable) tradition our larger family gets together once every seven or five years, so in early January we’ll have three days together at Bridge Valley Camp — about 70 or 80 from four generations having picnics and bike rides and generally hanging about together. There’ll be a concert and a Pechu Kuchu night and judging by previous events, we will love it.
So that’s one reason why I’m Christmassing at home. Why gather for Christmas when a mega-gathering will happen a week later?
Empty Wellington: not post-apocalyptic but a writer’s retreat
In January, Wellington is a different city. The streets are almost empty, yet I have almost never seen a zombie here in January. On the contrary, strangers say hello (hey, another human being!) and start chatting, as if in a village.
Summer pretends to have arrived. It’s wind-free and sunny (as a rule) and so peaceful that January is the best time for writers in Wellington. I dig in and become a writer in residence in my own apartment or on a park bench or in any cafe that keeps its doors open over the holiday period.
Doris Lessing: The Summer Before the Dark
The moment I realised I’d be alone this Christmas, Doris Lessing’s novel popped into my mind. Through a series of coincidences, the protagonist Kate Brown also finds herself alone for the summer holidays for the first time in decades.
Nobel laureate Doris Lessing’s classic novel of the pivotal summer in one woman’s life is a brilliant excursion into the terrifying gulf between youth and old age.
The Summer Before the Dark impressed me deeply when I first read it as a mere gal in my 40s. So I read it again to prepare myself for the educational value and the sheer weirdness of spending Christmas week alone.
The novel was no less impressive and provocative on second reading. Thinking about Kate Brown’s alarming summer is an ideal exercise for me as I near the end of my self-inflicted Boot Camp for Old Age. “Be who you are” is proving to be one of my most difficult challenges, more so when I remember that one’s perceived identity can be wiped out in a matter of days..
So shall I have a Happy Christmas? Of course I shall. I know that good relationships keep us happy, healthy and alive. But there’s much to be said for a home-alone adventure, especially if you’re a writer.
Every single morning I wake up full of thoughts. Do you? Embarrassing confession: I find them remarkably interesting. They start in my head and gallop around until they reach a certain point of satisfaction, then flow out my feet, treating my body like a drain pipe.
Because I live alone, nobody hears my morning thoughts or gives me feedback. When I lived with the Professor, I would tell him my morning thoughts (or dreams) as soon as he woke up. In the end, he found this intolerable; he likes to wake slowly and calmly, I suppose.
If I ponder one of these thoughts in company with friends during the day, this usually interrupts the communal flow of conversation. They exist in a satisfactory way inside my own head, like hermits. If I attempt to talk about them in company, they often flap around like black crows. Their natural environment is in my brain, before I flush them out.
I don’t put them down on paper: I just put them down, as in animal euthanasia. I have no idea whether the same thoughts regenerate and circulate again and again, perhaps in a spiral. Am I repeating myself to myself?
Miracles on the fly
This question interests me because sometimes I am positively thrilled with my morning thoughts. I think, “Wow! I wonder whether anybody in the history of the human race has ever thought that thought!”
A thought will feel amazing, surprising, and above all unique when it has allowed itself to be thunk past three or even two stages. That’s the difference between a thought and an idea. No PhD theses or 24-volume novels spring up ready-to-write in the early hours; but sometimes the potential manifests itself.
Are they worth trapping?
What if I wrote down my morning thoughts every day for a year? Then I’d see how much cogitation recurs, how much goes down the drain forever, and how much develops over time, building upon itself.
One day I woke a bit too early, and started wondering whether I would think anything worthwhile or useful or interesting this morning. (Note the elitism emerging already.) And then, assuming the worst, I started wondering whether I might cheat, by recycling something I thought a day or two ago.
How daft. I thought for a moment that I would jot down a few of my pre-6 a.m. thoughts without censorship or judgement. Yet immediately this seemed like a chore—instantly changing the essential nature of any poor little morning thoughts that might struggle past the sentries.
Thinking in Marrakech
That week I was staying in Marrakech for a family event, which doubtless generated surplus thinking time. The traffic is unpredictable. You’re walking down a narrow lane, maybe empty, maybe packed with people and stalls, when whoosh! out of nowhere, a car or motorbike or donkey-cart crashes around a corner and misses you by a whisker.
Anyway, bear with me, I’m laying the groundwork for an analogy.
I discovered that I experience danger in a different way from three of my sisters. When death misses them by a millimetre, they jump, they are momentarily scared, as anyone with half a brain should be. But apparently I’m wired badly. The situation might be genuinely dangerous, but I found it amusing, as if the world was putting on a pantomime for my benefit.
The death rate from traffic accidents in Marrakech is high, I am told.
Was that a thought?
So far, I have recounted an anecdote plus an observation. I’m not sure that deserves the grand label of “a thought.” My mind is just a toy, and I like to play with it. Morning thoughts are not right or wrong, but sometimes strange and funny—to me. They’re not brilliant or moral or enormous or inspiring or alarming. Just entertaining.
Like the traffic in Marrakech.
P.S. Self defence instincts are three, not two.
THIS POST was written in October 2014 and transferred from a non-Wordpress blog. Comments were as follows:
Good to read your post Rachel. I wake up early in the morning and ponder on thoughts. I find early morning the most creative time for me. Some thoughts I add to which sometimes translate into action, while other thoughts sit on the drawing board waiting for another time.
Amazing that u wake up full of thoughts…I usually think I want to sleep more…I think u should write them down for a year and then look back on them
Why don’t you do the same thing too? You might be surprised. Or not!
The rhythm of idea-generation is something that interests me too. If it peaks at a certain time of day, is that because of your own circadian rhythms, or just because that’s a quiet time for you?
“Listen to yourself.” I’m trying to do just that: listen to the words I say, and especially to my tone of voice. These give broad hints about a person’s attitude and mood and in a broad sense, health.
Most human encounters include a mutual enquiry about health and happiness and life in general. The exchange may be rapid and automatic and formulaic, but at the same time it’s usually sincere. We do care! And as we get older, the enquiries take on a certain intensity. Our contemporaries are ailing and failing and dying.
“How are you?”
“How’s your day?”
“How are you doing?”
“Is everything OK?”
How do you reply to a routine howdy?
Do you deliver an organ recital, as many older people do? More important, how does your voice sound when you reply—half full of strawberries or half full of wet concrete?
I bumped into a friend in his eighties (call him Luke) and asked the usual question and he said, “I’ve just had a triple bypass and a hip replacement!”
What tone of voice did you imagine—depressed, tragic, piteous, whiny, fearful or worried? Wrong wrong wrong. His voice was joyful and triumphant and he went on to say, “I’m feeling better than I have for years.” Then he rushed away to a meeting about his latest venture.
Voices tell their own stories
Yesterday at the pool I was reminded of Luke’s exuberant voice when I encountered another friend (call her Matilda) from decades past.
“How are you?”
“Good. I’m fine.” (Tentatively, as if to say, being well is a bad sign, it must stop soon.) “But you know, I’m in my eighties.” (Gloomily, as if to say, “Therefore by definition my life is completely hopeless and pointless and I’m sure life is horrible for you too, and if not, you mark my words, it will be soon.”)
“Well, you’ve still got that beautiful smile.”
“Huh. A smile with the back teeth missing.” (Bitchily, as if to say, “I’m ugly and you know it. How dare you say something nice about me? I have lost teeth. I have suffered.”)
In three sentences she made me feel sad for her, although she does indeed have a beautiful smile.
Statistically, everyone over 80 is likely to have at least one ominous health condition, so I do not underestimate the troubles of Matilda’s life. Her health problems have left visible scars. But this attitude, voiced over and over again in words and tone, surely cramps and squeezes and poisons the spirit leaving no space for hope, no space to appreciate a good swim.
Matilda did me a good turn
I decided to listen to my own answers to these daily howdys—both the words I say and the voice I use. I don’t want to be dishonest, but what’s appropriate? How much detail is appropriate? If you keep saying the same things, you get boring. If you keep using a gloomy voice, it doesn’t just reflect gloom—it spreads gloom.
Minutes later I met yet another friend in the changing room.
“How’s your day going, Rachel?”
“Brilliant. I woke up.”
“You mean the swim woke you up?”
“No. Every day I wake up, it’s a brilliant day.” And that is well worth celebrating.
This post was transferred from a non-Wordpress blog, and was originally published in July 2015. Photo: “Bessie” 1914. Alexander Allison. Commons, Wikimedia.org
Buddhists believe that we should aim for a state of non-attachment, and that anyway, everything we attach ourselves to is temporary, so it’s kind of pointless to get attached. Well, that’s a gross over-simplication of a profound philosophy, but it’ll do as a definition for now.
I do recognise that it may often be a Bad Thing to become over-attached to people or things or ideas.
Attaching ourselves to objects
If we are over-attached to objects, that may imply that we have invested too much pride in material possessions. We are greedy pigs.
Or maybe we have endowed a certain object with the power to represent a certain memory, or belief, or perhaps our self-image. We may be in love with an object for its beauty or nostalgia or usefulness or symbolism or rarity.
I imagine that attachment to objects is the crudest form of attachment.
But is it a Bad Thing to be intensely aware of the merits of an object, for example, an apple or the planet Earth? Isn’t that better than taking them for granted?
Attaching ourselves to ideas
If we are over-attached to an idea, that may mean we are closed to other ideas. We cling to our own perception or theory. We become boring, banging on about the same-old same-old year after year. We don’t listen to other ideas. We cannot collaborate. We become snarky, prickly conversation-stoppers, defending our idea against all comers. We may join a cult of fellow-worshippers. Other people won’t let us join their book group.
And yet how thrilling it can be to fall in love with an idea! Then we want to explore it to the limit, to test it to destruction, to talk about it all the time. One day we may find pot-holes in our beloved theory — and that’s fine. We can still can keep the idea as a valuable tool or even an inspiration, loving it for itself, on its merits.
Attaching ourselves to people
And if we are over-attached to people? OK, the Buddhist warnings may simply imply that romantic love is fleeting, or that co-dependence is a sickness.
But setting aside hormone-driven romance and pathological states of infatuation or neediness, I am unwilling to let go my attachment to my personal band of family and friends.
I do my best to hold their hands lightly so that they can slip away at any time. Eventually, on my deathbed or theirs, I will let my dear ones go. But please, Mr Buddha, allow us to love one other consciously and carefully until that moment.
Let go, let go! No no no no!
I consider myself pretty good at letting things go. Books flow in and out of my house like a river. Every time I buy something, I try to give something equivalent away. Messiness is fine but clutter offends me and gets dealt with pretty smartly.
But I had better let go of my self-image as a clutter-clearer. Because last week I thought I had lost my little blue change purse, and this was unexpectedly disturbing. When I lost it, I almost lost it. I was ready to slap LOST notices on every lamp-post and send out a press release and undertake grief counselling.
Luckily the purse turned up a few days later: it was just hiding.
Seems I am irrationally attached to that change purse. Hm, why, I wonder?
Usefulness. It is perfectly designed for its purpose. Though tiny, it has three compartments: one for notes, one for cards and one for change. It fits into my smallest pocket.
Beauty. It is beautiful object of the softest bluest leather.
Nostalgia. It is a memento of a happy family event in Morocco.
Rarity. It is impossible to replace without going back to Morocco.
Symbolism. It is simple and cheap and unappreciated by other people. I honour the designer and the maker.
Oops. I just noticed a more significant symbolism: the purse holds my money. How humiliating. How deeply unspiritual.
These are all reasons for enjoying the purse, but surely not for attachment.
OK, not perfect. But we knew that.
NOTE ABOUT THIS POST: “Attachment…” was posted elsewhere on 15 July 2015. Friends had trouble leaving comments on that site, but Lesley Maclean said:
Maybe it’s ok to be attached to things and people. Or rather it is neither ok nor not ok. There’s no wagging finger around to tell us either way. But, when we lose these things, we suffer because of that attachment. And if we would like to lessen our suffering it may pay to enquire into this attachment a bit as you have so admirably done with with purse, bulging with coins.
But when I lose someone or something dear to me and I cry, I think that’s a good thing. The Buddha cried, and we can too…
To which I replied:
I like your delicate approach to this thorny topic. My approach is more like a bulldozer, sometimes.