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Life in the big smoke

Back in rainy London

London. It’s eight days since we landed at Heathrow. The day after we left Finland the temperature in my hometown dropped to minus 27. Cold enough to make your hair turn white with frost and your nostrils stick together when you inhale. London hovers around 7 plus. Drizzle-gray. Sunshine and showers. Mostly showers.

Today I walked past the big house and the deer at Clissold Park. The sun was out. Orange light in the puddles. Bright and early joggers rushing past. I stopped to say hello to the deer. Then I met up with Madicken and we spent the morning writing together in a café. All the other customers had brought their laptops too. Madicken spotted an actor sitting behind us. It’s very north London. I wrote some words and I was pretty happy with them. Then I came home and read about the publishing industry and suddenly everything felt impossible. I did my taxes. I downloaded Spotify again and created a radio station based on Sia. I’m clicking thumbs down on anything that isn’t Sia.

This month is one of small tasks. It’s too early for a big picture. There is one thing and then the next and maybe soon the year will start taking shape. I took me a week to shake the post-Christmas fog. I went home to Finland and didn’t turn on my phone for the first five days. A sweet, disconnected rebellion. Gerry and I went for long walks when it was light. The inlet near the house thawed and then froze over again. The ice was washed up by a storm and looked like panes of broken glass, crushed and squeezed together. I’ve never seen it like that before. I ate well and often. I spent some time in the sauna. My muscles unwound themselves. I relaxed and stopped thinking about work, the future, everything. It takes a while to resurface from that. So here I am, tensing up again, telling myself I should do more yoga, writing lists and trying to get a sense of where this year will take me.

Image by David Marcu.

Goodbye November, hello December

I wrote this yesterday.

Last day of November. It’s storming outside, the wind is bouncing between the block of flats I live in and the one of the other side of the rail road tracks. It’s hitting windows and scraping tree branches along the walls. Sometimes a train rushes past. I hardly hear them anymore and only notice if it’s a big freight train screaming and whooshing.

London is still grey and it’s getting colder. I’ve spent the day transcribing an interview. I don’t often record the interviews I do anymore, but I’m glad I had this one on tape. There are good quotes that will only work verbatim.

December is falling into place and it makes me happy. I’ve started scheduling things and it’s a relief to know what will happen when instead of staring down a huge pile of stuff that just has to be done at some point. I think the most stressful part of being a journalist is the period before a story comes together, before I’ve started booking the interviews, when everything is still an idea. As soon as I know who I’m going to speak to and when I start relaxing, then I know it’s possible.

I’m starting to realise it’s the same with creative writing. I’ve come up with a new system. I need to know exactly what happens, from every characters’ point of view, throughout the whole book. The more I know the more precise I can be when I’m telling the story. In my previous attempts at writing creatively I’ve always been rushing, trying to get the story out as quickly as possible, because otherwise I fear I might lose it somewhere along the way (and I often do lose it somewhere along the way). But if I instead write it out quickly, in a not very coherent fashion, using plenty of clichés and a multitude of other literary sins, it already exists and all I need to do is slowly, carefully craft it into something that sounds good. Now that I’ve realised this one thing putting a book together seems more possible too.

Photo by Samuel Zeller.

So… how’s the writing going?

Oh, hello there. I’m sorry it’s been a bit quiet here lately. I’ve had a cold and then I went to Scotland and then I worked a lot, then there was a big art fair and then I got a cold again. I’m still sniffling away and my nose resembles something of a leaky tap, but this coffee I’m drinking is helping. I’ve even managed to finish a couple of the big items on my to-do-list. Life feels a bit more manageable again.

I have been thinking a lot about over-work lately. Why does it seem so important to be busy all the time? Is this a London thing? Is it a life thing? But I won’t go into that now, because my plan was to write about writing.

“So… how’s the writing going?” I hear no one ask, because I don’t really talk about my creative writing very often. I’m going to answer the question anyway.

I’m still working on it. I’ve been working on it for three years (which isn’t very long actually and even though I’ve been writing stuff since I was in my pre-teens, I hadn’t managed to finish any larger manuscript until I wrote the book that should have stayed in the drawer about three years ago).

I have now finished three fiction books. None of them were very good, but each one has taught me something. I’ve taken a couple of writing courses, I’ve read tons and I started seeing a really lovely writing coach. It’s all helping. I’ve also sent out a couple of manuscripts to different places. Sometimes I’ve had a response (thanks, but no thanks), sometimes I’ve not heard anything at all. It’s been dispiriting. It’s hard going when you look at your own writing and wonder what the hell your doing and the small fledgeling manuscripts you’ve dared to send off to competitions might have had more readers if they’d been rolled up, placed in a bottle and thrown into the sea.

Sigh.

About a month ago I felt especially frustrated and I thought; it would be so nice to get some kind of sign that all of this isn’t in vain, that I’m improving. And here I feel I should add that I am writing fiction because I enjoy it, characters appear in my head and they need to be put down on paper, sentences are fun to look at and make better. But writing is lonely, I am self-critical and sometimes it’s nice to get a little bit of feedback from someone out there, a pat on the back, a letter saying “we like this story”.

And guess what happened. A few days after my frustration peaked I got an email. This is what it said:

Dear Charlotta
 BRIDPORT PRIZE 2015
Whilst you have not won one of the top thirteen prizes in the Bridport Prize competition I am writing to let you know that your short story:
THE SECRETS OF ICE
was shortlisted. We had just over 4,500 short story entries this year and 100 were shortlisted.

I could have kissed the person who sent out this automated email. I sent my story to the Bridport competition, thinking I didn’t stand a chance. It’s one of the biggest short story competitions in the UK, lots of talented people who have been writing for years and years enter it. Lots of amazingly talented people win it. And I was shortlisted!

I danced and jumped around for a bit. I might have thrown a fist up in the air and gone “yess”. This is a huge thing for me, it spurs me on. I will keep going, even if all I end up doing with my writing will be to put short stories in bottles and throwing them into the sea.

Image by Max Okhrimenko/Unsplash.

Russian space capsules, writing and summer – just some stuff I’ve been thinking about lately

– What happened to the Russian space capsule falling through space? Has it burned up? Has it landed somewhere? During that blurry time around the UK general election I remember reading it was going to crash in the Thames. I’m pretty sure that a) I didn’t make that up and b) it hasn’t happened.

– Editing is as enjoyable as writing. I’ve spent many years thinking fiction writing should be padded out, it’s not journalism so it should contain LOTS OF WORDS and LOTS OF DESCRIPTION. But that’s a misconception (my misconception). It shouldn’t be lengthy and wordy, it should be true. Just write one true sentence some famous author is supposed to have told himself before sitting down at his typewriter. That’s good advice. Fewer words, more meaning.

aa322c2d Image by David Marcu.

– It will be June soon, but London is cold and rainy today. Summer doesn’t feel possible yet. We’ll go to Finland for a week in June. Before then I’m writing three new pieces on the UK economy and a few other things. Before then we’re doing The Other Art Fair in Bristol. Things are happening so quickly I hardly have time to write them down on my to do list. Plate spinning, that’s what life is about.

– I’ve bought stacks of books from Amazon. Most of them are still in their envelopes on the kitchen table. I’ve bought enough books to keep me busy researching and reading over the summer. When I’ve read them all I might be ready to tackle a new big project again.

One of my biggest problems or how to deal with that angry toddler inside you

It snowed this morning, big heavy flakes. It’s the worst sort of weather in this town, it keeps people indoors, only brave Londoners who have to work or desperately want their morning paper and a coffee hide behind umbrellas and hurry along the pavements. It snowed and then it stopped and now it’s just cold and grey. I’m in the studio. The heating is still not working, but at least we’ve bought a fan heater, it keeps my toes nice and toasty.

I’m writing, but I’m lagging slightly behind my target of 2000 words per day. After a marathon sprint during the last two weeks I hit some kind of wall on Thursday and Friday. Every time I sat down to write I experienced what can best be described as my inner angry three-year-old clenching her fists and shouting “I just don’t want to do anything”. I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced this particular kind of vicious inner procrastinator, but if you have you know she (or he) can be a bit tricky to deal with. I’ve spent two days reading British newspapers, looking up interesting flats on Airbnb and reading about super volcanoes.

There are a couple of texts I need to edit. I have a finished manuscript sitting on the hard-drive, waiting for me to pay it even the tiniest bit of attention. I’ve written a couple of short stories I’d like to send out. But every time I start thinking about doing that final edit, about perhaps getting them ready for readers who aren’t my immediate family that angry three-year-old appears again.

I know what’s going on here. I’m afraid of being judged, of what people might think and feel when they read my writing, so I leave it all sitting on my hard-drive. I’m not alone here. I’m not the first person to runaway and hide because I fear rejection.

So I need to come up with a strategy, something that will appease that angry three-year-old. How do parents deal with screaming toddlers? Well I just googled “how to deal with angry three year old” and a lot of interesting stuff came up.

Among other things:

Don’t judge the child for their anger

The anger is the problem, not the angry child. So … the procrastination is the problem, not my fear of rejection? Basically feel the fear and do it anyway.

Find the anger triggers

“Work together to try to find out what triggers the anger. You’ll learn to recognise the early warning signs that anger is starting to rise.” (From the NHS website)

In other words – don’t focus on the end result, focus on the work, when the end result triggers anxiety.

Have a specific goal

“You could have a star chart on the wall and reward your child with stickers for keeping anger away for a whole hour, then gradually move to half a day, then a day and so on.”

Yes, I know lots of writers do this, they reward themselves in different ways for reaching their word targets. Would a glass of wine for every short story sent out work? Ice cream? Pancakes with maple syrup and bacon? A full hour of reading about super volcanos on Wikipedia? I’m sure I can find some kind of bribe that works.

Praise your child

“Praise your child’s efforts and your own efforts, no matter how small. This will build your child’s confidence in the battle against anger.”

This makes sense, we all know it makes sense and yet we never do it. Give yourself some positive feedback every now and then.

In the end the main thing is to keep writing, to ignore the temper tantrums, to not give in to angry toddlers and to always have some ice cream in the fridge. So… 2000 more words, here we go!

Image by Caleb George.