Expanding Your Comfort Zone

This will no doubt sound like one of those hypotheticals, but here goes anyway:

I have a friend (see?) who is very bright and an excellent writer. When we first met at the beginning of first year of uni, it was one of those mutual admiration things with Jane (not her real name) reading all my work and offering thoughtful feedback and myself returning the favour. However, as the months went by, Jane seemed to slowly lose her enthusiasm for university. She began to skip classes and would make bold and disparaging comments in the classes she did attend – comments which could often not be justified because Jane was relying on internet cheat sheets instead of actually reading the texts and thinking about them by herself. Jane disliked several tutors (mainly because they called her out on her statements, asking her to back up her points with evidence) and ultimately began to narrow her focus down, on the creative writing side. Finally, by the end of third year, settling on just one specialism – dramatic writing. She was a good scriptwriter, but gradually it became apparent that her work was on the self-indulgent side. Every play was centred about herself, her needs, her wants and how awful everyone and everything else was. Nihilistic narcissism is her niche.

So now, as we head into third year, Jane is still clinging to drama, has nurtured hatred for even more tutors as well as a vast number of our classmates and claims that university has ‘ruined her writing talent’. We are still friends, although, as this blog shows, my patience is wearing thin.

As for myself: I have learned that the way to be a writer is to read a lot – continually and widely; to write a lot – try get some words down everyday, even if they come out fighting and refuse to flow, the more you write the less blocked you will ever be!; and to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

As an example, my poetry is bad. So bad. I don’t ‘get’ modern poetry, at all. (I quite like some of Carol Ann Duffy’s work and one or others, but Dr Seuss is still the bomb!) For me, in order for something to be a poem, rather than just ‘chopped up prose’, it needs to have rhythm. It does not need to rhyme, necessarily (and that’s a lesson you can chalk up to uni, before I would have insisted on ‘proper’ poems rhyming – not only that, rhyming consistently ALL the way through!) But rhythm is vital. Rhythm makes words into poetry, it makes it sound like music when it is read aloud.

So, when I was invited to write a poem for a contest, I spent hours and days working on a simple poem. I wrote and rewrote it, I put in descriptions and then stripped them  back down, I agonised over the punctuation and I read other poems by the score.

Finally, when I felt it was ready, I submitted it to the contest and then did my best to forget about it – I am well aware of my poetic limitations. Then, the next time I met Jane, she showed me a couple of her single scene playlets (as always, strongly centred around a theme of ‘Jane’!), so I thought I’d get her opinion on my poem. Her eyes flicked over the page for about twenty seconds, then she said, ‘I’m not a fan.’

That was it – no advice on how to improve, not even a reason for WHY she wasn’t a fan, just a bald ‘I don’t like it.’ Now, as you’ve no doubt gathered, I’m sensitive about my poetry, and, yes, Jane’s 20-second dismissal of it stung, but life will go on, (and I have recently written a review and a piece of flash fiction, both of which are being published later this year, so my slightly shredded  confidence is somewhat assuaged.)

However, now that a couple of weeks have passed, I have managed to soothe my stinging pride and can look back on the whole incident with equanimity. So a friend doesn’t like my poem, it happens. Am I pleased that I wrote and sent off what seems to be bad poem?

Yes. I don’t like poetry much, and I know I’m not terribly good at it. While I don’t expect to win the contest – I don’t even expect to be shortlisted into the top ten per cent – I am glad that I stepped up to the challenge and that I tried my best. I may never write good, or even acceptable, poems  but I will continue to try my hand at them every now and then.

Just so that I don’t wake up one day and find myself with a small and shrinking skill set in a miniscule comfort zone, trying to blame everyone and everything else for my limitations.

Like Jane.

Below I’ve posted the story that I mentioned a few blogs ago, the one that was reviewed as being a ‘dramatic essay’ rather than a story – let me know what you think it is in the comments below: essay or ‘real’ story?!

Photographic Memories

Friday was date night for Shelley and Jake. Shelley automatically snapped a photo of her laden black stone plate which she tagged wittily then uploaded to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. She tucked her chair closer to the table and spread her paper napkin in her lap, wishing that she felt comfortable tucking it into the top of her shirt in public – she knew the likelihood of cheese or oil dripping onto her shirtfront was high: it happened every time.

She bit into her pizza and closed her eyes in pleasure at the perfect blend of cheese, soft bready dough and the tart undertow of tomato paste. Jake took a piece of his pizza and ate it thoughtfully, watching her.

‘Why,’ he asked, chewing pensively, ‘do you always take photos of stuff?’

She opened her eyes and regarded him.

‘I mean,’ he continued, oblivious to her affronted ice-blue glare, ‘it doesn’t matter where we are or what we’re doing, you take pictures of whatever we eat and drink, before we go out there’s selfies of us in whatever we’re wearing to go out, and then there’s about a million pictures when we’re there. But we don’t ever do stuff because you’re so busy taking pictures of us getting ready to do stuff and posing with other people that there’s no time to actually do the stuff.’ Jake looked at Shelley as he stopped talking, and realised that not only did he – unusually – have her full and undivided attention, he had her full and undivided angry attention. ‘Wh-what?’ he faltered, suddenly uncertain.

‘For your information,’ she stated, coldly, ‘I take photos for my journal, so that when I’m older I can remember what I did in my late teens and early twenties.’

‘But do you honestly want to remember this particular pizza by itself? I mean, I’m not in the photograph, you can’t see the name of the place – it’s just a pizza on a plate. There’s no… no…’

‘No what, exactly?’

‘No context! Your Instagram is just picture after picture of food! I challenge you, right here and now, let me pick three photos and see if you can tell me where you were, what you did and who you were with?’

Shelley gaped at him for a long moment and he waited, sure that, at last, she would say something real, something honest, something deep. But then:

‘Let’s take a selfie!’ She bustled around the table, held her phone up above head level and leaned in close, raising her eyebrows and pouting. Jake glared at the small screen, refusing to smile, refusing to partake in her corruption.

He wondered, as she exclaimed delightedly over the image, cooing and showing it to him as she readied it for upload to her various social media platforms, whether primitive peoples had actually been right all those years ago, in believing that the camera stole a small part of the soul with each picture taken.


Theory of Relativity – kind of!

I had to have a root filling this week, following a couple of weeks of dental discomfort, the discovery of an abscess and a course of antibiotics. It was my second root filling, so I was anticipating things to be the same: utter agony from the moment of injection to the final instruction to ‘rinse’, the latter accompanied as it usually is with the loss of ability to control the simple process of sip, swish and spit, thick strands of drool falling from swollen numbed lips, and the vague embarrassment at the above which is overwhelmingly drowned out by the relief of being allowed, at last, to slither off that chair of torture. (Just wondering, why DO dentists’ chairs look quite so much like sun loungers?! So cruel…)

But this root filling wasn’t anything like as bad as the first, and for a few reasons. The first reason is that the abscess was a kind of self-anaesthetising one: the abscess swelled and put pressure on the nerve neatly numbing the area of infection and a section of my jaw and chin – so after the first few days, the pain was negligible. The second reason is because the first one was in a front tooth, and this made it feel as thought the drilling, scraping and filling was happening right in the back of my nose. It’s also hard to properly numb the nerves at the front of the mouth, apparently, no nice fleshy bits to sink the needle into and too much bone. I remember the hardly adequate first injection wearing off halfway through the procedure and needing to be repeated before the dentists (yes, two of them!) could continue scraping and prodding away without me actually hitting the roof.

Other reasons could include the fact that I’m now nearly twenty years older than I was the first time, and that I’ve recently had what I call (only to myself, as a pun it’s fairly pathetic) a ‘disbrokation’ – a combination shoulder dislocation/ humeral tuberosity (tuberosity refers to the knobby bits at the ends of bones to which tendons and muscles are attached) break, which was, without a doubt the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. And that includes three other arm fractures (all separate incidents), a cracked coccyx, a crashing fall off a horse that made my back too sore for me to walk for a couple of days and a dose of malaria that made me hope that death would come for me, sooner rather than later.

In the latter case, I was recently pregnant and each and every medical person that I came into contact with told me, condescendingly and with little patience and bugger all sympathy, that ‘morning sickness can make you feel dreadful’. Implication being ‘buck up, buttercup, it’s self-inflicted.’  Needless to say, when they finally (after ten days of feeling worse than death warmed up, shivering with cold, suffering full-on goosebumps in blazing Zimbabwean summer sun, and throwing up everything that I tried to eat or drink including water) did a blood test (more to prove me wrong than anything else, I felt) and discovered a thriving crop of malarial parasites in my bloodstream, I was raced off to hospital and put on a drip within an hour of the test results coming back. Had I been up to it, I would have triumphantly rubbed their noses in it with an, ‘I told you I was ill!’

Oh, and with my second pregnancy – yes, morning sickness does indeed make you feel ill. But not that ill!

So, following the white hot agony of the disbrokation which is only just starting to feel normal again after a good eight months of physio, stretching and weight-bearing exercises, this abscess isn’t so bad – even now as the compressed nerve twinges back to life as the swelling goes away and the root accustoms itself to the filling.

I’m currently trying to write a thriller (aiming for 3,000 words a day, total target around 90,000 so as to be done with the first draft in a month – not quite on target, but not far off, should be able to catch up as long as I do it soon!) and one scene needs to completely and utterly break the character. I’ve thought of things that would humiliate and mortify the character, but as soon as I write them down, my mind starts finding ways that the character can use to cope with the torment, ways to get over it.

So I’m having to resort to that old stand by – leaving it up to the imagination. Because I’ve felt, ever since I was quite little, that knowing something makes it easier to deal with. Once something is known, it can be classified, categorised and dealt with. Put in a box. The unknown is huge and dark and, by its very mystery, scary. Which leads me to the realisation of my own ‘theory of relativity’.

And this may be a final reason why my root filling wasn’t as bad as the first one. For the first one I had no idea of what it would be like, there was no ready access to the internet to see what other people said about their root fillings, and I did not know anyone else who had had a root filling (although there were a few who had had their wisdom teeth surgically removed and they said root fillings would be similar and described their experiences in lengthy, loving and graphic detail…) It was an unknown.

So: compared to what you know, even if it’s dreadful, the unknown is worse. And bad pain can be felt to be less so if it can be compared to worse pain. Relative. See?

What are your thoughts on comparisons between the known and the unknown? And between lesser and greater evils? Let me know in the comments!

Daily Writing Ration and Word Mergification!

The first point I want to muse over this week came from a conversation with my daughter. I like to be a bit facetious with words sometimes, especially when I’m talking to her because she is quite serious while I like to be silly. While talking to her, I mangled a word or phrase – deliberately and for effect (needless to say, I can’t remember a single one of my terribly amusing invented words right now – perhaps I need to start writing them down too!). She corrected me. I repeated the incorrect word (probably grinning annoyingly while doing so) and received a well-crafted eye-roll and,

‘Mum. Stop saying that word, it’s not correct and you know it.’

‘I know it’s not correct right now, but I want to make it correct. If Shakespeare could add words and phrases to the English language, so can I.’ (I know, what hubris!)

‘No.’ She shook  her head and started heading off upstairs to her nest.

‘What do you mean “no”? Why can’t I?’

She stared at me for a long moment then said, ‘When you’ve made more money than J K Rowling, and your made-up words are published and read by as many people as have read Harry Potter, then I’ll accept that you can introduce words like Shakespeare.’ With that, she turned on heel and was gone before I could say anything else – before I could close my mouth, to be honest.

As a creative writer I do like to press poetic licence to its limits and as a result, I tend to be fairly tolerant of word play and punning. How far will you allow people to play with language? Or are you old school, die-hard ‘the right way or the highway’ when it comes to grammar, syntax and word formation?

The second point is a curious one. I write creatively because I love  it and because I’m full of stories that want to be told, but to make a few pennies I write… I’m not sure what to call it, it’s not academic writing, nor is it, strictly speaking, purely non-fiction… I write articles, blog posts and web pages – things like that – for clients all over Europe and the UK. Let me explain a bit:

To put it simply: I signed up to a website as a writer, clients sign up as customers. The customers put in orders for the writing they want to have done, and the writers – as long as they’re at the right level – can see the orders and choose the one they want to write. For example, there could be a piece on ‘Top Ten Exotic Fruits’ for a smoothie making company that must be between 450 and 550 words. The piece will be paid at so much per word (never as much as it should be, but nearly enough to make it worthwhile!) up to the upper word limit. So if you write a 600-word piece, the client may accept it, but you’ll only be paid for the 550 in the brief. You may not write less than the lower word limit, the article simply won’t submit if the word count is too low.  Once the writers have chosen an order, they have a certain amount of time to submit the work, usually 24 hours, but sometimes a few days.

These articles are fairly quick and easy to write, requiring basic research without great depth to it. Don’t get me wrong I take them seriously, I enjoy doing them and put in appropriate efforts with my writing, editing and proofing, making sure that I earn my money honestly.

BUT, they drain my writing mojo.

I don’t know why, it shouldn’t be the case – writing 500 words in half an hour or so, after twenty minutes reading and planning should not be so mentally tiring. I should be able to knock out three or four of the above articles, then switch to my real love, creative writing, for another three or four hours and get a good thousand words or more down. But I can’t. Today, I wrote a 2750-word piece (on how and why to introduce spices when weaning your baby) in about five hours on and off. Having done that, I’m really struggling with this blog! It’s taken a lot longer than it should have, and I don’t think it has the polish that it needs. What is normally nearly effortless requires effort…

Let me know in the comments below if it is the same for you – do you only have a certain number of words or hours in which to get the good writing done? Or are you, machine-like, able to go and go and go?

Here’s a link to my latest story – it’s only little (a mere 100 words) but I’m quietly proud of it! https://drablr.com/lizmilne/drabble/fc5-little-red