Can I Be Novel?

From time to time I have what you might call a prosaic crisis, where I wonder if I’m actually cut out to write prose or whether I should stick to poetry.  Yes, I know that these blog posts are in prose, but writing an engaging post is a very different thing from constructing a novel; something which seems utterly to defeat me.

I don’t know where exactly the blockage lies; but maybe help is available, so when a special offer from Mslexia plonked into my inbox; a guide to novel-writing for only three quid, I felt a twinge of that old excitement.  I clicked on the link and read the blurb:

‘Starting with the early sifting of ideas, helping you decide what exactly your book will be about, it goes on to help you create engaging characters, to devise a plot and narrative voice that will keep your reader turning the pages, to work on description and dialogue (and the balance between them), on to editing your work: page by page, but also from a structural perspective.’

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  It’s perfectly standard stuff – and yet it somehow filled my insides with lead, because once again I felt ‘this isn’t where I’m at.’  I don’t mean I’m above all that, nor that I don’t need to structure a novel or have interesting characters or whatever, just that…

I don’t even know how to explain it.  I don’t know what I want, I just know what I don’t want.  And that is it.

When I write poetry I feel I’m on the edge of a cliff.  Not always, but often: there’s a sense of pleasurable vertigo, of the wind whipping through your brain and flinging your hair in bundles this way and that.  To be engaged – fully engaged – in the writing of poetry is to be on the high peak of living, a place where words flow through you and are shaped and ordered by your hand.  I experience an amazing thrill in working with words, chopping them up and exploring their sound and their sense.

So why can’t I do this with prose?  Well, when it comes to turning a phrase, I can – but there’s more to writing a story than having an instinctive feel for phrases.  And this is where my heart begins to sink, when I think about things like plot and character and action.  Whenever I consider plot, I begin to die inside.  I bimble along with my writing and then a little voice perks up and says, ‘Surely something ought to happen round about now?’ and then I cry ‘Must something happen?  Can’t I just carry on like this?’

I’m not so bad at dialogue; I’m pretty good at description and I think I can convey character and internal thought.  But plot?  Dear god – kill me.  Kill me now.

My prose bores me at the moment: I need something to get the pulse racing; like when I was writing my first novel about a woman trapped in a nuclear bunker and wanted the novel to go right back to the beginnings of life on earth, 300 million years ago.  I was really excited about this, but the novel took years to complete and came out at barely the length of a novella; a form that’s increasingly difficult to publish.  What excited me, though, was to try to get some idea of what three hundred million years is like, to which end I began this doomed exercise:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/three-hundred-million-years/

Sometimes I think I’d give my eye teeth to have a normal sort of idea; to be able to say to people ‘I’m writing a novel about a Bulgarian taxi-driver who … ‘ see?  I can’t even take that idea any further.  Instead of which, I’m writing a novel based on a series of Tapestries and the Fibonnaci series.  See what I mean?

‘Doomed exercise’ pretty much sums up my life right now…

Kirk out

 

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Please Do Try This At Home

I’ve no idea what this post is going to be about but the title came to me and so I put it in.  But I’ve started so I’ll finish, as Magnus Magnusson used to say, and tell you all about easing.  Not quantitative easing (not that I know what that is, though I seem to think it’s about easing the economy by putting a bit more money into it; a sort of Keynsianism lite) nor dressmaking ‘easing’ (which means sewing together two pieces of fabric of different lengths so they end up at the same place) but the normal everyday kind of easing that comes after a period away from work.  Of course, not all of us have that luxury; in today’s exploitative work environment holidays are a luxury, not a right and you are expected not only to hit the ground running but also to make up for lost time.  Bastards.

But since I am my own boss and only crack the whip when I deem it necessary, I am easing myself back into work.  This involves a morning of cutting the hedge (hardly a relaxing activity) followed by a nice cup of tea and a sit-down.

http://www.nicecupofteaandasitdown.com/book/

This is of course a British institution and needs serious conservation work in the age of people having ‘a latte to go’ or some such nonsense.  I mean, most places don’t do proper pots of leaf tea – and when do you EVER get extra hot water?  It’s an outrage.

Anyway, that’s my morning of easing.  Nice’n’easy – and yes, maybe you should try this at home.

Kirk out

Like the New Theme?

I’m trying to think of a word that isn’t revamp or makeover; words which strike gloom into the boots of every reader; anyway, whatever you want to call it, this blog is having one.  We’ve got a different theme called Penscratch and I’ve renamed it Sarada Gray to reflect the changing emphasis since I no longer write about yoga.  Now, I don’t expect you to get excited about this since this blog is about content not packaging; and I promise above all not to subject you to any surveys.  Surely everyone must be sick of surveys?  Every time I go on a website or fill out a form I’m asked to rate my experience: I swear to God that when I die I expect St Peter to be up there holding out a clipboard and a pen.  Please rate your life experience under the following categories….  Yeah, yeah, I appreciate that people are just trying to do a good job (or look as if they are) but there must be better ways of doing it than the infernal tick-box.

But I digress.  Sarada Gray, in case you didn’t know, is my pen-name.  If you don’t know where the name comes from and can’t be bothered to click on the link above, it happened like this.  In 1992 I was on a yoga retreat in Avila, coldest place on earth, at a convent in the mountains above Madrid.  The convent was basically a set of corridors open to the elements and the heating came on for half an hour a day, between 3 and 3.30 pm when I was usually taking a nap.  We got up at some ungodly hour to do meditation and at the start of the whole shebang we were invited to choose a ‘nombre espiritual’ – a spiritual name by which we would be known on the retreat.  This name should embody qualities which we wished to develop in ourselves.

I think it was that which inspired me more than anything in yoga – if you want to achieve something you should act as if you’re already there.  So I asked myself, where do I want to be?  The answer was of course, to be a writer, so I searched lists of gods and goddesses for suitable names and came up with Sarada.  Aka Saraswati, she is the goddess of creativity and wisdom (good combination) and is usually shown playing a veena, something like a sitar:

maa-saraswati-hd-wallpaper

Image removed on request

But believe it or not, it was years before I thought of using it as a pen-name.  For ages I played around with variations on my own name – Liza, Lisa, Beth… I knew I wanted to keep Gray but none of the variations seemed quite right; and then I had an epiphany.  Of course!  Use Sarada!  So there it is.  No-one else has a name like it; it has history and relevance and it sounds good.

So from now on this blog will be called Sarada Gray and soon it will have a new banner, courtesy of my talented son.

Now, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your experience of reading this post?

(Just kidding)

Kirk out

Tired of Brexit? Just Breathe – and Take Back Control!

It’s a long time since I’ve blogged about yoga.  Back in the day, I was posting about some yoga technique or philosophy on a weekly basis, but since I’ve stopped teaching the writing has taken over and now, when I’m asked to say what this blog is about, it’s hard to answer.  The tagline is ‘life and thoughts of a self-underemployed writer,’ and I guess that’s as good a description as any, though I’m not sure I’m ‘underemployed’ any more as I work basically office hours, 9-5-ish, Monday to Friday.  I’ve also got over the tendency to consider what I do as ‘not validated’ unless it is published: when you first start to write it’s very hard to justify the time spent doing it, and if years go by and you publish nothing that feeling can become almost unbearable.

The ultimate validation is to find your authentic voice.  I’m not saying publication doesn’t matter but I think it’s more likely to come once you discover your true voice rather than striving to be a copy of something else.  Still, it’s a loooooooooooong process: like Miles Davis said, it takes a long time to sound like yourself:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/783321-man-sometimes-it-takes-you-a-long-time-to-sound

None of which, I now realise, has much to do with the title; as I see that I’ve written several paragraphs very much not about breathing.  I have problems with breathing, as do a lot of people: I have asthma and rhinitis (like hay fever only not seasonal) and although I don’t often get a full-blown asthma attack I can feel short of breath sometimes.  The rhinitis is more of a pain really, consisting of a blocked and runny nose and frequent sneezing.  But hey ho – it could be worse.  I could have leprosy or syphilis.  I could be in a wheelchair having to prove to ATOS every couple of months that my amputated legs are still amputated and haven’t grown back.

So: what can I say about yoga breathing?  I have written essays on it; entire books have been devoted to the subject – but for me the most exciting thing about working with the breath is that it gives you control.  You want to take back control?  Learn to breathe and you can control your heart-rate and blood pressure.  You can slow down your thoughts and calm your emotions.  Stuck in a traffic jam?  Cut up by some arse in a BMW?  Been nice to someone who was rude in return?  All these things tend to raise the blood pressure and agitate the mind, and doing something so simple as merely focussing on the breath can really help.  Try some of these ideas:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/yoga-practice-of-the-day/

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/yoga-practice-of-the-day-energising/

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/yoga-practice-of-the-day-strength-and-serenity-when-feeling-under-attack/

Just breathe – it really is better than Brexit.

Kirk out

In Like a Lemon, Out Like a Lamp

It’s March now and you know what they say about March: in like a lion, out like a lamb.  It certainly arrived in leonine fashion; in fact it was more like a snow-leopard than anything, what with the Beast from the East (not Putin) coinciding with Storm Emma (not of The Archers).  The whole shebang reminded me of how blessed we are in general to have the Gulf Stream, and how horrid things would be without it: for, though we are subject to bouts of unpredictability and flurries of inconsistency, the climate of the British Isles (excepting the Highlands and Islands) is generally mild.  With climate change summers have got longer and winters shorter; and whilst I enjoy hot weather it does naturally worry me; a propos of which I have just started reading Naomi Klein’s book ‘This Changes Everything’ – a thorough and very influential guide to climate change and its deniers.

https://thischangeseverything.org/book/

As far as climate change denial is concerned, it is now on the level of ‘the moon landings were faked’ and not far off believing that the earth is flat.  The evidence is there for all to see; the polar ice-caps are shrinking, sea levels are rising, the sea is warming, habitats are vanishing and places like the Maldives are going under.  It takes some degree of mental contortion to disbelieve all of these facts, particularly when you consider that 97% of the world’s scientists agree that man-made climate change is a fact of life.  What’s more worrying is that the process of climate change may be exponential: that like the Fibonacci series I wrote about the other day (of which more anon) levels may not increase at the same rate but reach a ‘tipping-point’ beyond which recovery is all but impossible.

Now, I’m an optimist.  I’m a firm believer in the power of humanity to solve the problems it has created.  But in order to do this we need to believe that there is a problem: and climate-change deniers, especially when they are powerful politicians or global capitalists, are holding up progress in an utterly unconscionable way.

Enough.  We can do this, but everyone has to get on board.

Speaking of Fibonacci, I have planned the novel around the number sequence and, whilst I’m quite excited about this, it does pose some problems; namely, that the first chapters are very short and the last ones very long: it will also be a very long novel if I stick to the plan.  So I’m just going to go with it and see where I end up.  It’s exciting!

Kirk out

We Have Normality. Anything Else is Therefore Your Own Problem

I’m nearly better, though measuring your own progress is far from an exact science.  I was re-reading my old diary (from 2006) and trying to figure out if I was happier then or if I’m happier now – and I think the answer is, both.  I was happier then in the sense that I had work and money; we were involved with the children and had frequent holidays.  On the other hand the diary is full of my frustrations: people I disliked and didn’t know how to deal with; continual demands on me from work and children – and above all a total lack of time to write, which resulted in mental chaos.  My mind felt completely cluttered; and whilst I don’t have any of the external trappings I had then, what I do have is a large measure of mental clarity and plenty of time to write.  If I don’t write I get mental constipation: thoughts build up and up and are never released, like one of those progress bars which never quite gets to the end – or if it does, just starts all over again.  They ought to call them Sisyphus bars because they never get to the end…

Getting better is like returning to normal from Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex: ‘we have normality.  I repeat, we have normality.  Anything else is therefore your own problem.’

http://hitchhikers.wikia.com/wiki/Total_Perspective_Vortex

I have to figure out which symptoms were due to the TVP – aka chest infection – (eg tiredness, depression) and which are now my own problem.  Of course in a wider sense everything is my own problem, but it’s good to know which are caused by a bug and which aren’t.  Though I suspect it may not be that simple.  After all, why do we get bugs in the first place?

Now there’s a question with a never-ending answer.

Kirk out

Futility

There’s something about a Wednesday afternoon.  When I was a student this midweek time was given over to sports and leisure: you would wander round during fresher’s week signing up for boxing and ice skating and generally end up by week three hanging out in the coffee bar with your friends.  But this tradition seems to have gone by the board now, so that, instead of being a fallow period, Wednesday afternoon is a slump, a time when the enthusiasm of Monday has waned and the fun of Friday seems a long way away.

I’ve come to the conclusion that fallow periods are important.  Quakers, for example, traditionally don’t celebrate Christmas as every day is supposed to be special: and that’s fine, except that Christmas and New Year for many people are times of hibernation; a period when you can legitimately disconnect from everything and everyone.

In farming, too, it used to be the tradition to leave land fallow every fourth year in order to rest the soil – but that seems to have gone by the board now in favour of more and more fertilisers (there’s an evolving story on The Archers at the moment where Home Farm seems to have poisoned the River Am with nitrates.)

Then there’s the principle of Sunday as a day of rest (it doesn’t have to be Sunday but it’s convenient to have a day when nearly everyone’s off work.)  This morning on Thought for the Day Giles Fraser talked about the boringness of church being a good thing, as it’s important to allow time and space for the mind to wander.  I agree with him up to a certain point (though as a child my mind was never allowed to wander because you were supposed to pay attention.)  But there’s an important principle at stake here, which is that boredom is not some kind of disease to be eradicated but a fallow state which can be a prelude to great creativity.  When our kids said they were bored, instead of entertaining them we’d say ‘I’m sure you’ll find something to do.’  And they usually did.

I am more and more aware of the need to allow my mind to lie fallow.  It’s all too easy for the work ethic to sit on your shoulder and crack the whip, so that if you haven’t produced a certain number of words, you’ve done nothing.  This is not the case.  When the mind is in that fallow, ‘dreaming’ state, there’s no way to tell what you’ve done, because it’s happening under the radar – just as the regeneration of the fallow soil is happening in subtle, invisible ways.

Even so, on days like today I can feel a sense of futility.  What have I achieved?  What am I doing?  Where’s it all going?  What is the point?  These questions bump around in my head like particles in a Large Hadron Collider.

https://home.cern/topics/large-hadron-collider

But if I stop trying to ‘work’ and just let things be, something interesting will happen.  I’m not sure what, but I’ll keep you posted.

The final thought for today is that there are parallels between the First World War and the state of the NHS – not in the severity of the situation, but in terms of the leaders and those on the ground.  Doctors and nurses working in the NHS today truly are lions led by donkeys – and the sooner we get rid of this government, the better.  So now that we’ve arrived at the First World War, here’s a taste of true futility:

Futility

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
Kirk out