Finding the Time

This week has been full of packing, de-cluttering, and the head-ache inducing smell of paint. Tumbling piles of boxes, and where has my living room floor gone? Boxes and bags reluctantly sent to the charity shop, packed with my memories. Out with the old, in with the necessary.

We first began this house move back in July. Seven months of waiting; are we getting it, are we not? When the keys finally landed in my hands, I jumped (honestly) for joy. I wasn’t thinking of the hours of work, the sleepless nights, the chaotic mess. The guilt when packing that I’m not spending quality time with my daughters, and the guilt when I’m spending time with them that I’m not packing.

Sleep has mostly disappeared. I lie down and wake up with images of the rooms, rearranging the furniture in my dreams. Why is this so stressful? Surely I should be filled with joy about my new house, bursting with so much excitement that stress can find no way in?

But it is stressful. It is exhausting. As soon I fix one problem (the bathroom cabinet fell apart), a new one arises (the back door scratches the brand new floor). The days this month have turned into a tangled pile of jobs and unfinished lists. My routine is gone. Change and I are not friends.

And that is why I need to write. It is exactly when I can’t find the time to write, that I need my writing the most. When the world seems so busy that each thought is punctuated by another. That is when I need to sit still, in silence, and focus on each word. To scrunch up the bills and stress and the endless phone-calls and throw them into a bag, seal it tight, and get rid of it. I don’t think the charity shops would appreciate those bags; some things just have to be thrown out.

Part of my love of writing stems from my love of stories, poems and meeting new characters. But I also need the escape. A reason to stop. The feeling of warmth that spreads through my finger-tips as I type, the beautiful shape of words that form in my vision. I cannot multi-task when writing, I can only think about one thing at a time and that is what I am writing. There is no room for stress and worries in my writing mind.

And so, no matter how tired I am, how much I have to do, how many conversations I’m missing, I find the time. And each night I forget about moving house and sit, and write, and relax.

Why I re-read books.

The first book that I remember re-reading was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I was aged 11, and there was no sequel yet. I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the characters. I still remember the day I finished it, crying in my bedroom and feeling like I’d just lost one of my best friends. Then the idea hit me: I could just read it again and re-live the entire experience. I read it four times before the second book came out.

Re-reading books starts in infancy, with patient parents repeatedly reading the same books to their children. The more often I read a book to my young daughters, the more they love the book. But I rarely re-read books now as an adult. This is partly because I can’t even get through my reading list of new books, let alone keep going back to ones I’ve read before. But every now and then an old book calls to me, it’s familiar spine almost glowing on my book case. Sometimes it’s when I feel nostalgic, or want to read something that I’m guaranteed to enjoy. Sometimes it’s because I’ve momentarily mislaid the book that I’m in the middle of and don’t want to start something new until I find it. And sometimes it’s because I want to be transported to another place, somewhere comfortable and familiar.

For a few years, the book I re-read was David Copperfield. I think this is Dicken’s masterpiece, and the humour takes the edge off the dark subject. I first read it when I was newly engaged, and liked to compare the similarities and differences between David’s young adult life and mine. I felt that no matter how tough my life got, it was never as hard as David’s. Which was a constant reassurance, even if he was a fictitious character.

But now the book I re-read is Larkrise to Candleford by Flora Thompson. Admittedly, this started with my love of the BBC television programme, which led to reading the book. But unlike David Copperfield, I don’t read this book for the characters, because the book is more about the times than the individual people. I re-read this book for the feelings it evokes in me.

What’s strange about the fact that I re-read this book, is that it doesn’t necessarily make me feel happier. It makes me feel like I was born in the wrong century, and I feel nostalgic for a life I never had. It is set in a hamlet, in the late 1800s, a time when the roads were only trodden on by horses. When everyone had a role and a purpose, and no family in the hamlet suffered unemployment because machines hadn’t yet taken over farming.

Of course I don’t crave the poverty that existed back then. As Thompson says, “Poverty is no disgrace, but it is a great inconvenience.” But I do crave the simplicity of the times. Life now is so full of choice, that no matter what option we pick, we are always left wondering if we would have been happier with the other option. There was no choice in the hamlet, with every family living the same lives, and only their characters making them different. Their lives were as entwined as the ivy growing up their cottages, with a community unlike any I have ever experienced.

Would I transport myself back to those times? Part of me says yes, I think I would enjoy the life of simplicity, old-fashioned skills and community living. But the woman in me says no, because there is no excuse that can justify gender inequality. In Larkrise, the men went out to work, the women stayed home to raise the family and keep the house. While this would not be a problem for me, it would not suit me to have no choice about it. Choice is a vicious circle, with too much causing havoc, and too little causing despair. The reader and writer in me also says no. Illiteracy was common place, and reading was looked down upon. I cannot imagine a life without they joys of reading, and the release of writing.

And so instead I will keep picking up my tattered copy of Larkrise to Candleford, and dream of the best parts of another world. That’s the joy of a book, you only have to imagine the parts you want to. And escape, just for a little while, into a world without your own problems. Again, and again, and again.

Baking your stories: Thoughts on Writing

Have you ever tried to create a cake recipe from scratch? I don’t mean if you were lucky enough to grow up in a house with Darina Allen. I mean those of you who grew up in a house where the only buns were lined up in a neat plastic tray from the local shop, and the only flour that came into the house went into the bin un-opened, two years out of date. Then, imagine you get this sudden urge to bake; to invent the perfect cake. It becomes an obsession, occupying your daily thoughts. Just like writing is to an aspiring author… i.e. me.

To begin with, you need to read recipes that already exist. Learn the rules, and follow the amounts carefully. You need to master how to bake those recipes.

When you’ve read and read and read, you hit a point where you feel that you now understand how it works. You understand why you need to mix the eggs in slowly so the mixture doesn’t curdle, and why you have to grease the tin before you pour in your batter so it doesn’t stick. Surely you’re now ready to invent your own recipe. Right?

You begin one optimistic day, with a new apron, and a sparkling spatula. You take a little bit of this recipe, a little bit of that recipe, and mix it all together. You wait eagerly, watching the oven, and bing! It’s ready. At first it looks okay, and you leave it cool down. But when you come back in ten minutes, you realise it’s still raw in the middle. Back into the oven. This time the outside is burnt and the inside is hard. What went wrong? You tell yourself you just need more practice.

You try again, with a new recipe, something more manageable. Again you wait patiently, watching the oven. This time it even smells good. It comes out of the oven and looks reasonable. It even tastes reasonable. Definitely not the worst cake you’ve ever tasted. And so you share it with your family. They each take a bite and politely refuse the rest. Except your child; they tell you it’s the worst thing they’ve ever tasted and spit it out again.

So you go back to reading. You read and practice, not understanding why you’re not as good as all these other bakers, who make it seem so easy.

After much time and patience, you eventually make a masterpiece. Everyone in your family likes it. But when you put it on-line, it being too good to waste on just you, you don’t get much feedback. Why don’t they love it? Why haven’t you won the best cake of the year prize? Why are PR agents not knocking on your door?

And so you keep trying. Month after month, slowly getting better, steadily producing nicer cakes. Each one more delicious than the last. You fall in love with the baking and creating, experimenting and tasting. Out of the blue, you make the perfect cake. Even your kid, who is by now a stroppy teenager, eats an entire slice. And asks for more. People start sharing your recipe, and soon it goes viral. Other people are finally appreciating your creation.

I believe it’s the same with writing. You have to love the writing process enough to do it without needing the world to love your words. Then, when you’ve mastered the craft, someone will find you, if you really want them to. I’m still waiting, but my day will come, and by then I’ll be a better writer than I am today, and will have read more than I have now. Each book I read teaches me more than the words I write. It is an act of patience, love and enjoying the delicious journey.