Things to feel happy about

I’m happy. I’m just beginning to surface from the depths of my second novel and while it’s been intense, its also been incredibly exciting.

I’d heard a lot about ‘second novel syndrome’ before I sat down to attempt mine, although I’m not sure I was quite prepared for all that came with it … the crashing self-doubt, the weight of expectation, the deadline-induced panic. Don’t get me wrong; I love this new career and I feel incredibly lucky to be doing something that fills me with such joy – but in recent months my most frequent desk companions were nothing more than a mug of cooling coffee and a sneaky voice of self-doubt whispering in my ear: ‘You, a writer?’ followed by loud guffaws.

The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that I stumbled through the first draft of a very different story before I finally hit upon the novel I actually wanted to write. I think I rushed it. Instead of being patient – of finding an idea and letting it breathe – of making sure it was the right story – I grabbed at an idea and dived right in. But something was wrong. I realised quite late on that it didn’t feel very me. It didn’t feel authentic. Abandoning 100,000+ words is not a pleasant experience – certainly not one I intend to repeat again in a hurry – but once the right idea had arrived and I understood where it was going, I threw myself back into it and with it came all the joy I remembered feeling as I wrote Secrets of the TidesWhen the writing’s going well and the ideas are coming thick and fast, there really is no other task on earth I’d rather do.

It’s strange. I still don’t understand where the inspiration for a story comes from. For me it’s the seed of an idea that with gentle nurturing, grows and takes shape. There are dead branches to lop off along the way and lots of nervous moments where I bite my nails and wonder if the bloom I first envisaged really will grow from the mud of my imagination, but with careful tending things seem to eventually grow and take shape. Secrets of the Tides grew from a very personal place, one wrapped up in motherhood and my own childhood memories of Dorset. This latest story – currently titled ‘The Shadow Year‘ – also began with the idea of a place, a setting which brought with it its own unique mood. As I mulled on the place (a fictional lake hidden in the depths of the Peak District) an idea evolved and so began my story. Some days it flowed, but others it felt as though I was setting out with a butterfly net to capture an idea as vast and unwieldy as an elephant. To be honest, right now, I’m still not sure I know what it is I’ve caught in my net, but I do know that I’m feeling excited about it. The Shadow Year is an emotional and dark and twisty tale. It has another back-and-forth structure and hopefully a few unexpected surprises along the way.

While writing is something I love doing, it also feels like a rather selfish pursuit. It’s a solitary job and it takes me away from my family and friends. Mentally, I become very one-track. Fortunately, (and I’m sure mostly for the sanity of my long-suffering family) I was aided this time by the Varuna Writers’ House. Varuna is a retreat for writers nestled high up in the Blue Mountains (about 2 hours from Sydney). I went there for a week of wintery solitude in August and sat at my desk in the sunny Bear Room and wrote intensively. It was my first visit to the House and I quickly found there is nothing to do there but write and eat and sleep and read. It was both inspiring and productive and became the week that got me through the difficult hump of my novel.

winter snowdrops, the Bear Room, the drive leading to Varuna

Now, I’m just going through some edits with my UK publisher, correcting a few errors and reviewing the structure one last time (to prologue or not to prologue, that is the question) but the intensity of the past few months is easing and I feel myself coming round, tuning back into real life and finding a million different things to feel happy about: the smell of my husband’s Christmas cake baking in the oven; the sight of purple jacarandas blossoming all across Sydney; a stolen moment to enjoy books and coffee in the sunshine; cloud-watching; hide-and-seek with my daughter; a steady flow of much-loved friends and family arriving from overseas; beautiful family photos taken by the inspirational Tim Coulson; sand between my toes; my son’s feet dangling from trees; the Japanese maple we thought we’d killed springing miraculously back to life; the salty-whiff of the harbour drifting up our street and promising hot summer days of family togetherness. And of course, equally exciting, the chance to let my mind roam freely for a while as it seeks inspiration for another story …

Clockwise from top left: books in Berrima, a fish cloud, hide-and-seek with my daughter, jacaranda blossom, my son tree-climbing

Francis Bacon: Five Decades

Today, I took myself off to the Francis Bacon – Five Decades exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I’m in nail-biting limbo waiting for feedback from my Publisher on my second novel and so it was nice to break up the usual routine with a mooch around those big, white gallery rooms and gaze a while on some amazing paintings.

The art was moving and disturbing – the sort of work that challenges and creates an uncomfortable, visceral feeling. On one gallery wall was a quote which simply said: “What is life but what we feel?” Francis Bacon’s paintings, to me, were all about the extremes of feeling, of being alive.

A few paintings featured a man called George Dyer, Francis Bacon’s lover for nearly a decade. The artist claimed to have met George when he caught him breaking into his home. That detail really struck me – one of those stranger than fiction stories. Tragically, less than ten years later the troubled George died of an overdose in a Parisian hotel room, just before the opening night of Francis Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais. The paintings Francis Bacon created of George Dyer following his death were some of the most moving in the collection – the grief there to see in every brushstroke.

A postcard of Francis Bacon in his London studio, 1970. I love the clutter – the landslide of crumpled papers and photographs, the pots of brushes, the art books and discarded tubes and cans of paint, the wall behind him daubed with streaks of colour as if he has used it as his artist’s palette.

How would you really enjoy spending your life?

The Sydney Writers’ Centre tweeted a link to this lovely video earlier this week. It really struck a chord with me for being both inspiring and eminently sensible.

“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way.”

I wanted to save it and share it here.

The House of Tides

No … that’s not the title of my second novel. The House of Tides is the US title for Secrets of the Tides which Grand Central will publish in July 2013. And here is their glorious cover. I love it so much. It makes me want to thread daisy chains and do roly-polys all the way down that hill!