Words, words everywhere…

My youngest son wears hearing aids, he’s not profoundly deaf, but his condition makes it hard for him to hear. And I find it very frustrating when he gets disciplined at school for ‘not listening.’ What the teacher needs to say is that he hasn’t followed the instruction given, not that he didn’t hear it in the first place. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one in my eyes and one where words aren’t being used as effectively as they could.

Being a writer I’m often very careful with the words I chose to put on the page and the order in which I write them down. I’ve never been a writer who has trouble with having a novel that is too long, it’s always been the other way around, but that doesn’t mean I’m always concise and effective with what I write, and I’m not always so careful with the words that come out of my mouth, however, nor the ones with which I use to talk to myself. You know, the ones that say you’re not good enough, or that you’ve probably offended someone without meaning to, in fact, you definitely have.

Recently I have had many conversations about effective use of language. I went on a mental health training day where a midwife told us that they are no longer allowed to call their hospital department a ‘delivery suite,’ for they are not delivering pizza. It now has to be called a ‘birthing suite.’ And then I spoke to a friend who knew someone whose daughter developed an eating disorder in her teens. As a child the girl had been tall for her age and everyone had always commented on how ‘big’ she was. She took this to mean fat. I’ve also spoken to many teachers who know not to say a child is naughty, but what they are doing is naughty.

If we thought about it too much we’d never speak again for fear of damaging our children or unintentionally upsetting someone, but where we can I’m beginning to think what we say and how we say it is more important than we think. We need to be mindful of our words when speaking to others or ourselves, or when writing a novel or article, and even when tweeting and blogging. For these are all places where meaning can easily be ambiguous if words are not chosen carefully. They can do more damage than the author ever intended, I should know, I’ve been that author.

Over the last few months I’ve been very focused on using effective language – I’ve been editing my first novel and I’ve been having therapy, mainly for OCD, and anxiety linked to my sons’ medical conditions. Both of these things have been primarily focused on the words I use and how they can be misinterpreted, or aren’t clear enough, or are downright unhelpful. I’ve learnt to cut sentences that start with…

But what if….’

‘I shouldn’t…’

‘I ought to…’

Nothing good has ever come from me thinking things beginning with those words. They lead me to catastrophise and feel guilty. They make me more fearful. They offer no comfort, only criticism. And in noticing these words and making subtle changes I am learning to cope with situations better, although some better than others, it’s taking time. It works in writing too. Changing the negative into a positive can make a sentence more powerful. Instead of describing a character by showing how they’d never behave I now write about what they do. There’s always a more powerful verb than don’t, shouldn’t or can’t. I saw a TED talk recently about how different languages have their own nuances, and how negative the English language can be without us even thinking. For example, have you ever heard someone say that they broke their leg? It’s the way we speak, the way it’s been for a long time, putting blame on ourselves. In other languages if you said, ‘I’ve broken my leg,’ then the listener would think you took a hammer to yourself and did it on purpose. Generally when you break a bone it’s an accident. You didn’t break it, it broke. You didn’t spill the milk, it spilt. It was an accident. Blame need not be apportioned.

I’ve also been more observant about how I am spoken to, and how I react to words that come at me. If I assume they’re going to be hurtful then of course they generally are, whereas if I choose to look behind the words themselves and think about the place they are coming from, then that usually changes my perception of them. I’m learning to let go of the words that say more about the person saying them than they do about me. It can all be so subjective, a bit like fiction you could say. Best to not leave anything open to misinterpretation in my opinion, but then that can cause issues to. Some people really don’t like hearing the truth.

But overall I’m learning, in both my editing and my life, to focus only on the important stuff. The meaningful bits. When editing I need to get my point across as quickly and clearly as possible, removing as many unnecessary words as I can. And therapy is proving that I need to do the same with my internal voice. Basically I need to cut out the crap and just…Get. To. The. Point.

And quicker!

Writing and prams in hallways.

There’s been a lot of talk recently on social media and in newspaper articles about prams in hallways and whether in order to be an effective writer you need time away from your children and familial responsibilities, think Doris Lessing. And then there’s the ongoing gender pay gap debate, talk of glass ceilings and the fact that having a baby quite often fucks your career up. It’s all age old stuff.

But, age old or not, it affects women today, and after seeing an interesting thread/discussion on Twitter about writing and motherhood earlier it got me thinking. Mainly about me and my writing and whether having those three prams in the hallway over the last seventeen years have stopped me succeeding in my chosen careers. And whether those children have been a hindrance to my creativity, or whether they have enhanced it.

Before I became a writer, in the formal sense for I’ve always been a writer, I was once a primary school teacher. And I was once promoted on to the senior leadership team whilst on maternity leave. I was also once humiliated during a senior leadership training day, where the boss (male) held his hand up to my face after I’d challenged him on something, and then told the course facilitator that I’d just come back from maternity leave and didn’t know what I was talking about. I did. During this time, whilst I was working part-time as a teacher, I wrote a blog, and some short stories. Sometimes I scribbled away in the middle of a night full of insomnia, and sometimes at my desk when I should’ve been doing paperwork when I wasn’t teaching. My children didn’t stop me then, heck no, they gave me stuff to write about.

Several horrible months later, when I had the pram of my third child in the hallway, I embarked on my writing career. And whilst currently I’m not affected by the gender pay gap as such, I am the one who works from home, the one who is always the first port of call when one of my children has a hospital appointment or is unwell or has a parents evening at school. My husband is usually home to put the children to bed, but he never has to compromise on his job. It always comes first. Always. He’s off snowboarding in a couple of weeks, for an entire week. When I asked him if I could go away for the same amount of time the answer was a resounding no. He wouldn’t be able to get the required time off work. And yes, I am ever so slightly annoyed by this. I don’t want to go away anywhere exotic, but a few days away to write uninterrupted would be blissful. I always manage to write, but when I am able to immerse myself in my novel for more than a few hours at a time it can be a game changer.

When I started taking writing seriously and started an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University is was a dark time. My middle child was seriously unwell and admitted to hospital for three weeks for many, many investigations. But I didn’t take any time off. I didn’t defer any of my assignments. I wrote. Again I wrote in the middle of the night whilst he was having his cannula changed, or during the day when the wonderful hospital physiotherapists came and pummeled his lungs. Then, when he was in theatre for over six hours having his permanently damaged lung removed I didn’t stop writing. It gave me something else to focus on and think about during one of the scariest few hours of my life.

That’s the amazing thing about writing; you can do it anywhere and at anytime. But that’s also the annoying thing about writing; you can never use it as an excuse for not coming home or for not attending your child’s Harvest festival. People think it’s a fluid and adaptable thing that you can pick and drop at will. But it is not. You have to work bloody hard to ensure that writing does not sit silently at the bottom of the importance pile (by the way, I am not saying that writing is more important than any child; just thought I’d better point that out.) You have to want to do it. It has to be an itch that you cannot bear to not scratch. Pram in the hallway or not.

And sometimes it’s hard to get someone to take writing seriously, especially when you’re not a published writer. They don’t get the process. How it takes months, maybe years to even get a first draft of a novel to a point where you can actually send it out to publishers. I am pretty sure my colleagues from my last primary school think I’ve failed as a writer because in the four years since I’ve left I’ve had nothing published. It doesn’t mean I’m not working my ass of every day. It doesn’t mean I’m not getting closer to that all important goal.

And every writer goes about that in different ways, whether they have children or not. Some writers love a retreat. I’m pretty sure I would if I was ever able to a) physically be able to get to one, see previous dig at snowboarding husband, and b) afford it.

There’s no right or wrong about that as far as I’m concerned. Children adapt and I’m a firm believer that the more people they have look after them the more loved they feel/adaptable they become. Childcare shouldn’t all be down to one person and one person alone, it certainly wasn’t when I was a single mum many years ago. But, I do not think you need to leave your children permanently in order to write, and I do think of the stories surrounding Doris Lessing doing so in order to write may not be the whole truth.

But one truth I’m dealing with is this, whilst a pram in the hallway doesn’t mean you can’t achieve, it does mean that you have to adapt your working ways in order to do so. It is not always the enemy of good art, in fact, it can mould art and force it to take an altogether different, but equally creative path, but it is something that needs to be considered. Things are changing, but the world is still, in my experience at least, geared towards the man and his role in the home coming first.

But I will continue to write and be successful and creative in spite of that. I can be a damn good mother and a shit hot writer.

And I am.

The waiting game…

You’ll discover the wonderful irony of this blog post as I get going, procrastination is an ever present curse…

I’m currently sat in the local coffee shop, with two fellow writer friends, writing novel number two, whilst novel number one is with an editor. And, of course, after every word I type I am checking my emails, which is roughly every two seconds. Even though I know in all probability I’m not going to get a response any time soon, because editors are very, very busy people.

And so instead of plodding on with novel two (I will come back to this) I have decided to procrastinate – first by sorting out new social media names and blog links (goodbye @InstinctiveMum and hello @jfaulknerwriter) and second by writing this blog post. It’s the very first one on my shiny new author’s website and focused mostly on writing and not parenting. I am of course mainly writing this post so the next time I am in this situation I have something to read and refer to and get comfort from because, so I am reliably informed, the waiting does not get any easier.

So here are my top seven tips for surviving that hideous in between period – when you’ve done all you can do with your work in progress, and you’ve tweaked and fiddled and edited until you’ve lost all perspective and have sent your manuscript off to an agent or an editor.

Here goes…

  1. Write. Maybe, for example, a blog post. There’s always something you can write about. It’s great procrastination, plus it allows you to find a home for all of the superbly awesome adverbs you’ve not been allowed to write in your novel.

 

  1. Catch up with old friends. Send out numerous texts and await replies. Meet them for coffee, for lunch, for wine, and DO NOT TAKE YOUR PHONE. Or if you do take your phone switch off email notifications. You can put your hand to better use by using it to transfer wine or gin or cake to your mouth.

 

  1. WRITE. (Yes…I know I am repeating number one a little bit here – but it’s important.) Don’t stop writing. Articles, blog posts, short stories, the next novel. Never stop. Busy your mind with new characters and new plots. Do it, do it, do it. I do try however, most of the time, not to faff about anymore or even look at the draft of whatever I’ve been working on and have sent off. I recommend you close the file on your computer and/or put a paper copy in your bottom desk drawer because a) you’re more than likely to discover a gaping plot hole and cringe, and b) you may edit it in a very different direction to how your agent/editor feels it should go and end up creating even more work for yourself.

 

  1. Give the dog an extra walk and…obviously…do not take your phone. Clear out cupboards, have a spring clean, go for a swim, shop, or bake. Do all of the things you’ve put on hold because you’ve been head down and meeting a deadline. Basically keep your hands busy so they don’t keep picking up your phone and checking your emails. How you keep your hands busy is up to you….

 

  1. Observe. Jot down new ideas. Listen to conversations. Go to different places and make notes about them. You never know what will inspire you, plus getting out of the house is by far more enjoyable than stewing in it, unless of course the weather is pants, in which case stay in and have a hot bath. Or do number 6.

 

  1. Read. All writers know how important, and fun, reading is. Read something you wouldn’t normally pick up – you can learn just as much from a novel you don’t like/enjoy as you can from one you can’t put down. And watch films. I like to notice plot twists and when exactly in the movie they happen. (thanks for this tip Emily!) It’s nearly always at the same time. There’s definitely a formula and it’s also interesting to see how plot points and character motivation are set up/revealed in dialogue.

 

  1. WRITE. WRITE. WRITE. I know. I need to take my own advice now, don’t I?!

 

Have you got any more tips? I’m only a week in and quite probably have a few more to go….help me!!!