MOOD MANAGEMENT and WRITING

I made the mistake of looking in some boxes. The idea was to throw things out. Why? I hear you cry. Space, fool. Anyway, I thought I’d start with a box which had OH GOD written on the side. I could have started with ODDS AND SODS or MISC (miscellaneous) but for some reason I dreaded MISC and ODDS AND SODS sounded boring, so it was OH GOD that got my attention.

person in white shirt lying on brown wooden bed

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I opened  the box and filled with good intentions took out the following:

  • the love letters my grandmother wrote to my grandfather during the months they were engaged
  • old passports showing my mother in her early twenties and a photo of her whizzing down snowy slopes in the 1940s
  • receipts from the 1890’s including one for a fancy lorgnette
  • a copy of the Sunday Mirror 1918 splashed across the front cover of which is the announcement that my great great grandmother’s marriage was legitimized by a Scottish court thus legitimizing her 14 children, one of whom was my great grandmother
  • a book into which is pasted from the Eastern Daily Press all the golf triumphs of my grandmother in Norfolk between 1907-1911. A grandmother I never met
  • a diary my mother kept of a trip to Italy with the Byron Society at some point in the 1990s when she comments on the extremely handsome Italian sailors in the hotel she was staying in. Excuse me, Dad, where were you?
  • a poem my great Uncle Norman wrote to his sister (my grandmother) giving moral guidance.
  • the photos that same uncle took when he went up to Oxford round about 1905
  • research my grandfather ( a history teacher who taught my father who became a historian) did into Tudor Cornwall
  • an undated card sent to my mother from a doctor training in south London asking her if she was married yet? Well, were you mother? After all she kept the card
  • a newspaper article about the battle of El Alamein in the Second World War, a battle my grandfather fought in with his tiny, indecipherable handwritten annotations on it

I’m a writer. Am I really going to throw out all these tiny fragments of family stories? Well, I’m not, am I? Although I did manage to throw out a thank you card to my great Uncle Norman from one of my cousins saying, ‘Thank you for the shoe horn.’ So I sat back put my head in my hands and groaned OH GOD!

And then I picked out an article by Anne Enright from the Guardian 5/7/08. Hurrah, I thought, this is why I have opened OH GOD. It is to find this article. And here at last we get to the title of the blog. This is what she has to say:

“Writing is mostly a case of mood management. The emotion you have is not absolute, it is temporary. It may be useful but it is not the truth. It is not you. Get over it…. You have no confidence? No one who is any good has any confidence. So, tell me what makes your particular lack of confidence so special.”

Interesting and here’s rather a good bit on ‘butch Americans’.

“Two years in (to a long project) you think of all the great books written in 6 weeks (why is it always six?) – Falconer’s As I Lay Dying, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Hemingway’s The Sun Always Rises – and why is it always these butch Americans? Did they all drink?”

Then I come across some reviews of my old crime books. One of JUMPING THE CRACKS in the TLS 4/1/2008. I’d completely forgotten about it but it ends with this paragraph.

“There is nothing wrong with any of this, and the writing is relaxed and literate, with some nice humour, all of which makes reading Jumping the Cracks perfectly pleasant, but in the twenty-first century shouldn’t crime fiction do more than simply please?”

Now then, you’re supposed to be grateful for any review and gracious about it but I have to say this posed an instant test of my mood management skills and it brought vividly to mind a letter which Judi Dench sent to the theater critic Charles Spencer, when he’d given her a bad review for Madame de Sade in 2009. She wrote:

“I’d always rather admired you but now realise you’re an absolute shit.” Referencing a stage accident which had meant she missed a few performances she continued. “I’m only sorry I didn’t get a chance to kick you when I fell over. Maybe next time …”

Amidst all this I also found at the bottom of the box a note on a bright pink piece of paper which states FREE YOURSELF FROM DEFENSIVE PERFECTIONISM! I wrote it but I’ve no recollection of doing so.

I now know exactly why I wrote Oh God on the side of the box.

Send help. Or advice even. Or Marie Kondo. Doesn’t she say you should only keep things that spark joy? Clearly the review doesn’t but it’s a minor miracle to get a book reviewed these days and it was the TLS. What would the butch Americans have done I wonder? Might it have involved drink?

All this and I’ve still got MISC and ODDS AND SODS to go. I think I’ll need a year of reciting the mantra The emotion I have is not absolute before I dare venture into them. Or perhaps I might try It’s perfectly all right to be perfectly pleasant. It has a rather nice Noel Coward/Cole Porter ring to it, don’t you think? And perhaps I should dance around throwing flowers in the air while reciting.

Have you got an OH GOD box? What did you find the last time you looked in it? And if you’ve got anything to offer on the vexed subject of mood management and writing I’m all ears. A perfectly pleasant response is guaranteed.

STEINBECK’S WET AND MANGY MONGREL

I wrote a while ago about Steinbeck’s pencil obsession as described in his Journal of a Novel, the novel in question being East of Eden. At the end of it he writes a final letter to his editor Pascal Covici, which is described as the first draft of the dedication of the novel and  in it he quotes from the prologue of Don Quixote, describing Cervantes as the inventor of the modern novel. This is what Cervantes has to say:

“Idling reader, you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest and the cleverest that could be imagined, but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like …”

Steinbeck goes on to say something similar, that he has never ‘lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability…’ in the process of writing the book. And then continues:

“A book is like a man – clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.”

Photo by Luiz Fernando on Pexels.com

Writers are constantly negotiating this space between what they imagine they can create and what they end up creating and self-loathing and disappointment are a fairly common response to this gulf. It’s worth remembering that assessing one’s own work is a notoriously difficult thing to do. There’s also the irritating fact that finishing one book does not make writing the next one any easier. However accepting the likely presence of the wet and mangy mongrel may help you to keep going. 

I have never kept a diary of the writing of a book and I’ve been thinking recently that I might try. Even if it’s just a sentence a day. Even if I’m already 40,000 words in. But at what point of the day to write it? At the beginning? Or at the end? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll call it: Letters to the Wet and Mangy Mongrel. Truth is I’m more of a Heinz 57 type anyway. So maybe I’m half way there. Have you ever kept a diary of a creative project? What was the experience like? Was it helpful afterwards? Did you learn anything from it? 

DU MAURIER’S REBECCA

So have you heard? Netflix are doing a new version of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. There are going to be spoilers in this post, so be warned. Live long enough and you’ll have clocked up quite a few film and TV adaptations of this book and I have. There’s the Hitchcock directed Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine film in 1940 (nice overcoat, Larry) with Judith Anderson playing Mrs Danvers. The 1979 TV series with the splendid Jeremy Brett and Joanna David with Anna Massey as Mrs Danvers and finally the 1997 mini-series with Charles Dance and Emily Fox. The recently late but very great Diana Rigg played Mrs Danvers in that one.

Here’s the trailer for the new one.

There might be some I’ve missed but now in 2020 here comes Armie Hammer and Lily James and KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS AS MRS DANVERS. Yes, the capitals WERE INTENTIONAL! I can’t wait. Before I even knew what enjoying schlocky, campy, gothic anythings might mean in terms of my … err… general personality, I loved Rebecca.

I probably read it first in my teens and its excellent teen fare because it’s so overheated and dramatic which is exactly what you are (ahem) I was, as a teenager. However, reading it again recently, I was struck by what an emotionally constipated monster Max is. He has to be because of the plot but even so he really is thoroughly dislikable. He also utters probably the least romantic proposal in all romantic literature:

‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’

To which I would reply, channeling my inner drag queen:

“Say, no darling! Send him packing! Forget Manderley you’ll be far happier in Upton Snodsbury growing begonias and while you’re about it for god’s sake throw that broken ornament at Mrs Danver’s head. Just chuck it at her and then sack her. Sack her, sack her, sack her!

I also found the second Mrs de Winter (the unnamed heroine and ‘I’ of the book) began to pall because she’s so insecure and self-conscious and her thought processes are both neurotic and repetitive.

The more modern versions have brought in certain changes. Some actually cast the character of Rebecca and shoot scenes with her in flashback. She never appears in the book. There is also, not surprisingly, the introduction of sex scenes. Or there were in the Charles Dance one anyway. In the Hitchcock film it is made clear that Mrs Danvers has set fire to Manderley and dies in the ruins. This is fitting because Mrs Danvers is presented to us as ‘a witch’ so Hitchcock decided there was a neatness to ‘the witch burning’. In the book however she’s left the house before that happens. It will be interesting to see how the new version ends.

So here are the questions? Do you mind these kinds of changes? And who is your perfect idea of casting for Maxim de Winter, the heroine, and Mrs Danvers. One thing is certain the best Jack Favell, Rebecca’s seedy ‘favourite cousin’, is hands down George Sanders.

Here he is to cheer you up. You need to shift this along to about 3 minutes in and then you’ll get the bounder bounding through the window. You’ll also get Mrs Danvers materializing Star Trek style. Most unnerving! He’d make a good Max actually, although on the other hand I can’t see him playing someone so utterly lacking in self awareness and so humourless.

He’d probably be my favouite cousin too!

Incidentally Daphne du Maurier came from an interesting family but I’m going to blog about that some other time.

STEINBECK’S ‘PENCIL TRIFLING’

In 1951 while writing the first draft of East of Eden John Steinbeck wrote a letter a day to his editor Pascal Covici. It gives an insight into his thought processes, as he is actually writing the book. In one entry he said this:

It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling.

pencil pencils stationary equipment

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

On March 23rd Good Friday Steinbeck was clearly obsessed not with plot or character but his pencils. 

You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good one’s but never the perfect one.  And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is alright one day is no good another day. For example yesterday I used a special pencil, soft and fine, and it floated over the paper most wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper.

He goes on to say he has three types of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days. Then he says:

I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way.

As delicate as a rose petal – how lovely! One day stabbing and  breaking and one day soft and delicate. 

When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand I retire that pencil. Then Tom and Catbird (his children) get them.

Oh, and how he loves his electric pencil sharpener:

I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. To sharpen the number of pencils I use every day … by a hand sharpener would not only take too long but would tire my hand out. 

As a writer, it is all too easy to fetishize the tools of your trade and indulge in magical thinking along the lines of:

“If only I had that beautiful note book/pen/pencil/cabin in the wood/tree house/house by the sea/lake/Lake Como actually, No, make that a palazzo in Venice/ oh no wait what about mountains? Actually just give me a garden, any garden.” Then I would write a masterpiece.

Looking out onto the street, outside my window I’m currently looking at a smashed TV screen and some plastic bottles rolling in the gutter. Usually I’m also looking at the backs of BT engineers fiddling with wires in those green street cabinets. I worry about their knees. The overground part of the District Line is about 15 meters away. I live on a main road. Someone is usually drilling somewhere very loudly along the road. This is where I’ve written all my books.

There’s the odd occasion when I long for a house with a sea view. When it was 35 degrees for a few days in a row this summer and they were tarmacking the road directly outside, the noise and the heat were such that I got to thinking about where I would live if I won the lottery – Iceland came to mind – but that’s rare. I write where I live like most writers, for better or worse.

And I’m sure you realise that I’d never do anything as crass as buy certain types of pencils thinking they might turn me into a Nobel Prize winner. Oh, no…

Whoops, I’m definitely feeling the metal here! One for the kiddies I think…

Steinbeck used Blackwing pencils and if you’d like to take a look at their very desirable website here it is. They even produced some lovely purple ones last month in honour of the passing of the 19th Amendment and women getting the vote in America on August 18th 1920.

What are the tools of your trade? Do you have a favourite?

HISTORICAL SLANG#3

Before lock down I did a few blogs on historical slang, so here we go again. This one is mid 17th century to mid 19th century.

To put a ….

beige and black hat near swimming pool

Photo by Jude Stevens on Pexels.com

Upon a …

Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

To put a swimming pool on a chicken? No, fool. To put a hat upon a hen: To attempt the impossible. I have to say this hen looks full of mischief and definitely not hatable or should that be hattable?

Since we’re on the subject have you ever tried returning a phone to Vodaphone? I had the misfortune to buy a Nokia 2.3 from them and it had the interesting foible of being fine when it came to calls to and from and fine when it came to texts out but would it receive a text? Oh, no it wouldn’t. The only text it received during a 72 hour period was regrettably the first time I entered a Vodaphone shop saying it wouldn’t receive them. So when I went back the following day, I had to throw a full raging fit, when I was told I had to speak to science and tech. ‘No, I said, I won’t. I have spoken to your virtual assistant the whole of yesterday afternoon.’ Then I went the full Italian, (no disrespect meant to Italians only admiration), I threw my hands in the air and pretty much shrieked, ‘I’m not moving until you sort this out for me. There’s something the matter with it. Give me another phone.’

At that point another Vodaphone employee looked across and said ‘What phone?’ and I said ‘Nokia 2.3,’ and he said ‘I had a man in here with that problem yesterday.’ And had he managed to sort it out? No, he hadn’t but there was something on their forum about it.So then I knew they could not fob me off with science and tech. So at this point the hat was almost on the hen’s head. It then took about two hours to get everything resolved because Tobi, the virtual assistant had done something he shouldn’t and the system wouldn’t refund me, until it did.

When it was all over the man who had been dealing with me looked at his boss and said he wanted a day working from home which made me feel slightly guilty even though none of it was my fault but he definitely had the look of a man who had been trying to put a hat on a hen, as did I, and as did the very long queue of people who were waiting outside the shop and giving me the evil eye as I left.

How about you? Have you been attempting the impossible recently? Tell me all about it.

HISTORICAL SLANG: BADGER-LEGGED

BADGER-LEGGED: To have one leg shorter than the other. Colloquial from about 1700. Coming from the erroneous belief that a badger has legs of unequal length. So here is a picture of a badger showing a bit of leg.

Badger, Animal, Forest, Mammal

In other news the washing machine is banjaxed. You know you are doomed when the repair man says he’s never heard a machine make that kind of noise before. It was like a deranged metallic cricket. The replacing of a circuit board was mentioned but it’s 15 years old. Then he broke open the door and I got my laundry out. I hope they don’t shut down London before next Thursday, when the new one is due, because if they do I’ll be washing my pants in the sink for the next 3 months.

An attempt at normality was foiled by the absence of croissants in the Co-Op. I knew I was doomed when I saw a substantial woman coming out of the shop cramming a croissant in her mouth. Incidentally, I know the feeling both the substantial part and the cramming part, although I usually wait to get home before eating them. All gone and not a can of sardines to be seen.

On the badger front I have started following a twitter account called Mr Lumpy and Friends. It consists of films of badgers eating things and also an excellent one of a baby badger having its ears scratched. Very soothing. I highly recommend it, especially for those moments when you return home and tell your partner you haven’t got the croissants.

http://www.twitter.com/LumpyandFriends

JIGSAW PUZZLES AND WRITING

For those of you who might be doing some jigsaws. A re-post of one I did earlier. I used to do jigsaw puzzles with my mother when I was a child and recently due to a need to sort through some family papers I discovered them again. My mother had some very specific criteria for the puzzles she would do. They should be of works of art and they should have interesting shaped pieces. Not for her the kitsch of the country cottage or any lurid flowers or cute puppies. And she had absolutely no interest in swathes of sky. Waddington Fine Art Puzzles fitted this criteria perfectly. And so over the years she bought a lot of them, some of which I kept. This one below is by Johannes Vermeer and is called A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (1670-72) and it’s in room 16 of The National Gallery in London.

jigsaw2

The main thing I remember about doing them was the companionable silence broken periodically by a murmur of satisfaction as an elusive piece was slotted into  place.

Recently, I’ve been feeling anxious and my concentration has not been good and finding the puzzles gave me a craving to do them again, so I have been interspersing my writing with a bit of jigsaw-ing. I’ve been finding it soothing and according to Wentworth Wooden Puzzles there’s a reason for this.

“An activity that can help us experience some of the many benefits of mindfulness is focusing on completing jigsaw puzzles. In a similar fashion to popular adult colouring books, jigsaw puzzles allow the brain to relax while keeping the hands busy. They provide a calming distraction from hours spent staring at screens, whether that’s a computer, TV or even a phone. An easy way to channel the imagination, a jigsaw puzzle gives you a creative outlet whilst keeping your mind focused. This activity allows us to achieve a state of creative meditation as well as leveraging the left (logical) and right (creative) sides of the brain.

Some studies, such as the MacArthur Study, have even concluded that people who solve jigsaw puzzles in addition to other activities that provide a mental workout, can actually lead to longer life expectancy, better quality of life and reduced chances of developing certain types of mental illnesses (e.g. memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease) by up to a third.

Because of their calming qualities, completing a hard or challenging jigsaw puzzle can have serious effects on your mood. We all know the satisfaction of finally finding where that last piece goes, but this actually encourages the production of dopamine, the chemical in your brain which helps keep us happy and healthy. These mood enhancing effects help to lower our heart rate and blood pressure, allowing us to release stress and tension. These benefits make jigsaws extra beneficial for those who suffer from stress or anxiety.

Completing a jigsaw puzzle can even put our brains into the same meditative state that we experience while dreaming!  So why not take some time out away from work and your phone to complete a jigsaw and see how it can help focus your brain and relax.”

My novels have always come in fits and starts. Rarely have I seen how they fit together until very close to the end. I do not plot them all out. I do not know what will happen. This creates anxiety which I recognize as  part of my creative process but sometimes it can feel like a curse. A jigsaw however can be physically completed; I can create a whole picture.

I’m approaching the end of this one now and what I’m left with are the dull brown pieces. There’s an expression bird watchers use to describe the multitude of birds which are barely distinguishable from each other: LBJs or little brown jobs. Doing this puzzle, I completed the blue of the dress first and then the orange of the string instrument on the left. The colours stand out and are easy to separate. The LBJs may not be flashy and colourful but without them the picture is not complete. They hold the fancier bits together. As I’ve got older I have grown to appreciate more the non-flashy bits of writing, the craft that finishes a paragraph well or sets the scene vividly but with economy. These bits can be hard to write but they make the whole story run smoothly. Anyone can write a fight scene or a funeral.

Towards the end, progress stalls because putting all those brown bits together is more difficult. And that definitely corresponds to my writing experience. The first 30,000 words can feel easy, fun and filled with hope. And they take probably half the time of the last 30,000. Why do I always forget that?

jigsaw4

Doing a jigsaw puzzle of a famous painting has another advantage. It puts you up close and personal with it in an intriguing way. You have literally pieced it together, so you know it intimately. I remember the shock and delight of seeing Winter Scene by A.B. Avercamp for the first time. It was much smaller than I expected but there was the turquoise jewel like roof of the main house, there were the birds sitting on the branches I had struggled to put together and there was the red shirt of the boy on the left. I was stunned. I was taken back to being a child, sprawled out on the floor next to my mother, filling in the pieces.

So, if anyone’s got a nice Waddington Fine Art Jigsaw Puzzle of between 500-1000 pieces – no sky, no pets, no cute cottages, no rushing trains – you might just have yourself a buyer. And if you’re interested in the very beautiful wooden puzzles produced by Wentworth Wooden Puzzles take a look at the link below. I’m very tempted by The Art of Painting and who is it by? Oh, that man Vermeer of course!

And if anyone ever sneers and asks you what the point of doing a jigsaw puzzle is, tell them you’re leveraging the left and right hand side of your brain. That should stun them into silence long enough for you to fill in at least a couple of  LBJs.

https://www.wentworthpuzzles.com/

HISTORICAL SLANG: HOG IN A SQUALL

 

white and gray bird on the bag of brown and black pig swimming on the beach during daytime

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hog in a squall: to be beside oneself, out of one’s senses (-1887, nautical colloquial). Obviously the above pig is not in a squall but this morning I was. I had adapted to the joys of the cherry picker, beep, beeping past the window (it’s like a bad case of tinnitus) and the loud arguments of the two men using it and the apocalyptic drilling next door and the social distancing and all the rest of it and even the fact that the washing machine had picked the perfect moment to breakdown. But this morning there was a power cut. Yes, that’s right no electricity so the shops could not open and if it wasn’t bad enough round here with people panic buying, the power cut doubled that. And then the guys next door said that they would have to cut the water off at some point and I thought, Oh, fine no electricity, no water, no washing machine. How lovely is that? So yes, Hog in a squall, that was me. And then the power came back on and I felt a whole lot better. I’m trying to write my fiction but unfortunately it’s a plague scene. Can I just say in my defense, it was a plague scene before COVID-19 hit, a historical plague scene. Oxford 1644 in the middle of the English Civil War. They had typhus, something called campus morbidus and plague. But it feels immoral to be writing it and anyway who is going to want to read about plague once this is over? Time to think again.

HISTORICAL SLANG: HODDY-DODDY

A squat person. Generally in the 17-18th century in the form of a rude rhyme:  Hoddy-Doddy, All arse and no body. Apparently it was applied to the Rump Parliament in 1648 and no doubt it will probably apply to me when this is all over given the amount of 85% chocolate I seem to be consuming.

And in other news I have never felt less socially isolated. Yesterday a cherry picker arrived outside the block I live in to look at the gutters. Did it look at the gutters? No it did not. Did it beep a great deal while trying to, a foot from the window I was working in? Yes it did. At the same time they are doing up the flat next door and they are making the kind of noises that make you feel they will come bursting through the walls with a big drill in their hands. And then someone came and cleaned the carpets in the communal part of the block. Social isolation? Oh and then the washing machine broke. It was obviously waiting for the perfect moment and it chose yesterday. Still no cackling farts in the Co-Op [see previous post].

HISTORICAL SLANG: CACKLING FART

Today’s word is: CACKLING FART – An egg, late 17th-18th century. A cackler is a fowl so it should really be CACKLER’S FART but it isn’t. Incidentally a CACKLER was also a blabber (18th-20th century). A CACKLING-COVE was an actor and a CACKLE-MERCHANT was a dramatic author (1860). A CACKLE-CHUCKER was a prompter in the theatre. Hence CUT THE CACKLE! to shut up. Which I am not going to do because although I am not a dramatic author, I am a historical fiction writer in London which is in shut down because of COVID-19, so expect more cackling for your entertainment tomorrow. After all what is a gal to do when she has time on her hands but read her Dictionary of Historical Slang from cover to cover and visit her local Co-Op and discover that there is not a cackling fart to be had for love nor money.