From the depths of winter to The Peacock Summer

There is a general consensus that broken hearts are fertile ground for creativity. The break-up album. The affecting, painted canvas. The revealing memoir. Joan Didion wrote eloquently about loss and grief after her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds wrote the dark and dazzling album, Skeleton Tree after the tragic death of Cave’s young son. Sir Francis Bacon produced some of his most important and moving paintings after the suicide of his lover. Meryl Streep once famously concluded a Golden Globes acceptance speech with, ‘Take your broken heart and turn it into art.’ There is a clear sense that the experience of deep emotion can be somehow as transformative and productive as it is painful.

Not so, for me. In the earliest days of loss my feelings were out of control. Everything felt sharp and hyper-real. I was on the edge and capable only of emotional outpourings in my diary. Real life had become more scary and far less predictable than any plot twist I could envisage. I was holding on by a thread, focused on the nuts and bolts of living, of getting out of bed in the morning and facing the days. I was trying to fathom life as a suddenly-single parent, with all the responsibility that brings. I had a half-finished first draft of a novel sitting on my laptop and a looming deadline, but frankly, writing fiction felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford.

It turns out, however, that just as we cannot hold on to perpetual joy, we also cannot spend our days at the coalface of raw emotion. Feelings are ephemeral, cyclical. After the emotional overload of the early months, I sank into a different state. Numb paralysis. The empty heart. I fell into the depths of winter. It was, in a way, worse.

I once said in an interview that as a writer, it’s important to try and feel what your characters are feeling. If you don’t feel it, your readers won’t either. After months of heightened pain, I realised I wasn’t feeling anything. My senses were dulled. And the half-finished first draft of The Peacock Summer sitting on my laptop? Well that seemed to belong to a different writer, from a different time. Not me.

So how do you return from the empty place? How do you find your creativity again, when it feels as though it has been lost for good? Well, as so often in nature, it involves a long, slow thaw. It takes time. And it takes work.

I carried on writing in my diary – private excerpts of sadness, as well as more hopeful pieces about the life and love I still glimpsed around me. I joined a closed writing group for fellow broken hearts led by widow and writer Megan Devine. A month of writing prompts allowed me to explore my feelings in a safe place with fellow grievers. I slowly began to return to reading, dipping in first to those books that mirrored my experience and made me feel more sane for echoing my emotions. I took advice from other writers, particularly the late Penny Vincenzi who reassured me that I would get back to it and that writing could become a kind of therapy, in time. I read all the Harry Potter books with my children, religiously, night after night. Together we explored love and loss through the words of J.K. Rowling and slowly, gently, I rediscovered my love of fiction and the escape it could offer. I began to pick up novels again, and fall in love with the power and beauty of the written word. My own writing became a personal release. It offered escape. It was a chance to leave my life and immerse myself in another’s. Slowly, the numbness faded and the feeling returned.

Just as ‘you can’t hurry love’, I think it’s fair to say that you also can’t hurry grief. You can’t fast forward through pain. It’s a gruelling exercise of endurance. A little like writing a novel, it simply takes as long as it takes. Until, one day, you raise your head and realise that the fog has cleared a little and there, in the distance, is a path. Not the path you thought you’d be taking, but a path none the less, and with the arrival of the path comes the renewal of something else: the curiosity to step onto it. Just as in writing a novel, you may have a rough map in your head of where you hope the path will lead, but you also have to be open to the unexpected twists and turns ahead. Both the joy and the sorrow that you know will come.

For today at least, I feel like the depths of winter are behind me. Today sees my third novel, The Peacock Summer, (that half-finished first draft I once couldn’t bear to look at) published in Australia and New Zealand. In another two days it will be released in the UK. I have just signed the contracts for several more countries to publish the book next year. On a perfect English summer’s day like today, with the sun falling through a window onto my desk and the sky a holiday snapshot blue, and with a book on the cusp of release, it’s almost easy to forget the personal and professional work that it has taken to get to this point. It’s almost too easy to forget that these are events I truly thought were beyond my reach even just a year ago. And it’s also a little too easy to skip forward and to focus now on the worries of publication … the anxiety of reviews, promotion, events and sales.

But today I won’t future gaze. Today, it feels important to take a moment to recognise the person I have become and the work that has gone into getting here. I am remembering exactly what it took and just how many people were involved in helping me. Today, I acknowledge the painful – but real – transformation that has occurred. Not necessarily a better version of myself; but certainly a different one.

Because I am now a person who knows that grief will never leave me. I understand the ebb and flow of it. I know that just as it can retreat and soften, it can also surge back, sharp and painful. I know that it will always be a part of me – just like the love it stems from. I know I will keep living and writing … changed in ways I never could have imagined … my heart more broken yet more capable of feeling both sadness and joy than ever before. And as I write these words, I do shed a tear for the man I loved deeply and unconditionally, and for the person I was who loved him. And I take a moment to acknowledge him, before I hit the ‘publish’ button on this post, close the window and turn back to the new document sitting on my laptop, ready for the work ahead. Creativity as release. There are worse things to throw your bruised heart into.

camus

 

 

Debbie Millman: Courage and the Creative Life

I recommend the following course of action for those who are just beginning their careers, or for those like me, who may be reconfiguring midway through: heed the advice of Robert Frost. Start with a big, fat lump in your throat, start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, or a crazy love sickness, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be undoubtedly what you deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now, not twenty years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.

Click here to read more from Debbie Millman’s inspiring speech at brainpickings.org

Childhood Memories As Writing Inspiration

I have had the good fortune to tour around Australia recently with Get Reading, talking about Secrets of the Tides and The Shadow Year, meeting lots of readers, booksellers and librarians. I’m not a great fan of public speaking – I’m of the sweaty-palms-thudding-heart category – but the more I do it, the more I enjoy it. Plus it’s incredibly satisfying to speak to people who have not only read your work but also engaged with it on some level.

One of the things I am asked most about is where my ideas come from. Over the course of the tour, my response to this question has become quite automated – I give a quick snapshot of of a place from my childhood that evoked powerful memories in me (Dorset) and talk about my own journey to motherhood, as well as my relocation to Australia … and how the three combined in some magical way to create the seed that grew my first novel, Secrets of the Tides. It’s become such a stock response for me that the other day I found myself wondering if it was even true, or something convenient I was just spouting in public.

So I was amazed (and reassured) when my Mum sent through THIS photo last week.

My sister and I on the pebbled beach below Golden Cap, 1983 ish

My sister and I on the pebbled beach below Golden Cap, 1983 ish

I haven’t seen this photo for about twenty years and it took my breath away because it could be a scene lifted directly from Secrets of the Tides, right down to the overcast sky, the flapping welly boots, and the craggy cliffs towering in the background. I’m the girl in the foreground in the red boots. I wonder if I’ve just tried to skim a pebble across the waves.

Since I began writing, I’ve come to understand that childhood is a powerful place from which to draw inspiration. Tapping into the truth of an experience and the emotions that surround it … building upon them … letting them grow into a new, fictionalised idea can provide amazing fodder for a writer. It took seeing this photo after all these years to remind me of that and convince me that Secrets of the Tides is a more personal book than even I truly understand.

ps. How funny is that man, slumped on the beach behind us? I hope he’s OK!

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

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.

Richard & Judy!

It’s paperback publication day in the UK and I’m utterly thrilled and completely gobsmacked that Secrets of the Tides has been selected for the autumn 2012 Richard & Judy Book Club. I found out just a few weeks ago and have been smiling and pinching myself ever since.

Richard & Judy won’t know this, but we go waaaaay back. As a kid, the best thing about being sick and off school was watching them on This Morning. Fast forward a few years and I was skiving university lectures with my flatmates and hanging out a little too much with Richard & Judy from the comfort of our knackered old sofa (yes, there was also a little Sunset Beach, too … I know, ssshh). Jump ahead a few more years and there I am working in publishing in London as it’s announced that Richard and Judy will launch their very own Book Club. Excited? You bet!

As any UK book lover will know, Richard & Judy have championed a huge number of books and authors since they launched the club. I was working at Hodder & Stoughton in London when it all began and  had the immense joy of seeing David Nicholls’ hilarious debut Starter for Ten (2004), David Mitchell’s mind-bogglingly brilliant Cloud Atlas (2005) and Jodi Picoult’s emotional roller coaster My Sister’s Keeper (2005) all get selected for the club. Those moments when we found out at Hodder that books (and authors) we all, as a company, felt so passionately about had made the campaign still remain some of the best moments of my publishing career.

It’s a testament to just how crazy/strange/cool life can be that seven years later I find myself with my debut on their book club list. I have only four words: Get. Out. Of. Town.

Sadly, 12,000 miles just seemed a teeny bit too far to travel to meet them, what with a looming novel deadline and two small people at home to worry about but, with hindsight, I wonder if it wasn’t for the best. I’m sure there would have been sweaty armpits (mine) and shaky legs (mine) and maybe a little bit of inappropriate gushing and knee touching too (me to them). Perhaps I would have, in my nervousness, even delivered a wardrobe malfunction spectacular enough to surpass that moment of Judy’s at the 2001 National TV Awards. I can only imagine.

So, instead, just a few weeks ago, on a gorgeous winter’s day, I went to the Sergeant’s Mess in Sydney’s Chowder Bay, where I filmed my answers to a few of their questions. And yes, I was giddy with excitement about the whole thing. (There is a video somewhere – I’ll link to it when it goes up.)

Now the 30th of August is finally here, the Richard & Judy Autumn Book Club has been launched and my paperback is out there. I’ve seen for the first time the wonderful titles Secrets of the Tides will sit alongside and I feel truly honoured and gobsmacked all over again. I’m particularly thrilled to see Eowyn Ivey’s magical The Snow Child on there, which I’ve already read and loved, and another fellow Orion title, The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz of which I’ve heard wonderful things. My current reading pile is already out of control but I’m certain I’ve just discovered a few new favourites to add to my bookshelves. So thank you Richard & Judy. Thank you WHSmith. And thank you Orion.

If you’d like to find out more about Richard & Judy’s autumn Book Club and the other great titles selected you can get more info here.

Here’s to a happy northern hemisphere autumn jam-packed with books and reading!

Writing, sense of place and self-doubt

What a glorious week it’s been for the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The city has put on a dazzling display of sunshine and sparkling harbour views and the crowds down at the Festival in Walsh Bay (I was told at the launch it’s the 3rd largest literary festival in the world) were huge.

I sat out in the sunshine and listened to a panel discuss second novels, and enjoyed separate sessions on comedic writing and sibling relationships. I also took part in my first festival gig which I will blog about separately, simply because I want the opportunity to wax lyrical about Emily Perkins’ divine new novel ‘The Forrests’ somewhere on here.

I promise the shameless self-promotion will stop soon, but in the meantime, here is an interview I did with the Sydney Writers’ Centre at the Festival earlier this week. I really enjoyed this one – hard not to when you’re talking about writing in such a beautiful setting.

Writing to music

I keep reading tantalising pieces from other writers about favourite Spotify playlists to listen to while writing.

As Spotify is yet to launch in Australia, I am having to satisfy myself with my rather overused itunes library. Once in a while I rediscover an old gem, or upload something new but my current favourite is the soundtrack to A Single Man. It’s so lovely – and providing huge inspiration as I plough on towards 80,000 shaky words of a first draft of my second novel. Abel Korzeniowski, you are a God.