Kids home, still writing

Coping strategies for a guilt free, child-happy, writing-is-happening time…

The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid. (Article by Lauren Sandler, The Atlantic, 2013).Well that’s me out then. I have four.  And we still have three full weeks of the summer holidays to run. Don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying my children’s company. But let’s be honest, it is relentless.

‘Six weeks holiday, six whole weeks!’

‘No it’s not, it’s seven!’

‘I thought it was eight.’

So went the conversation in our house when school broke. Part of me always shares in their euphoria, but another part goes into mild panic. How to be the devoted and attentive mum whilst not letting this time that I also need for my writing disappear? It’s not all bad, I have finished an edit and begun preparations for next term. But I know I won’t get these weeks back and I can be as guilty of wasting time as the rest of them.

My nine-year-old wants me to know of her every thought, which though endearing can be slightly wearing. She defines exuberance. This, of course, blesses me no end but is not without its challenges. My eighteen-year-old wants to talk through the complete range of her potential A level results and the pros and cons of adjustment and clearing, almost daily. My son wants to take things apart and reassemble them, and all four children have an opinion on everything. Tolstoy is said to have written in his diary ‘Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything’. I get where he’s coming from but I have been driven to find some slightly more inspirational comment.

There is sound advice to be had, however.

E.B. White, writer of Charlotte’s Web and co-writer of The Elements of Style has been here, too.  I can relate to what he calls ‘the carnival that is going on all around me’. He tells us, ‘the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to.’ Does this sound familiar? He continues, ‘If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.’ I think he’s right. There’s a lot to be said for grabbing the unexpected five minutes that come our way, wherever we happen to be.

I have taken White’s advice and am developing the ability to work with noise around me. My tactic is to write the essence of the thought that’s hovering in my brain, jotting down the key words and then fine-tuning it during a moment of quiet. I surface before the family when I can, often by 6 a.m., and this gives me my two or three most productive hours of the day. It’s when my thinking is at its sharpest and I spot most of the faults in my work from the day before.

When my youngest is full-on I can still use my lap-top and research themes, read articles and think about my classes. I can also read with chaos all around me, but it’s the creative work that’s often put on hold. I could work in the hut in the garden, but I prefer to save this for when there is a particular deadline. I like to read in there and let the kids join me if they want to (and they do).

There is much to be said for encouraging some early independence. ‘Read your book’, ‘Walk the dog’, ‘Make X a birthday card’, ‘You’ve got one hour to fill on your own, then I’m going to take you out.’ These are all phrases I trot out on a daily basis. It’s still a slog at times though, so please send me yours too.

At the end of the day, I want my kids to remember vibrant, happy summer holidays with a mum who was around for them. And if my writing features in anyone’s memory, then that will be a bonus.

Coping strategies

Making time. What is your best time of day, early morning or late at night? Attempt to surface while the rest of the household sleep, or stay up into the night. Once you’ve had a successful writing time at this hour you’ll do it again. Like me, Toni Morrison has found early mornings to be most useful. In The Paris Review she says, “Writing before dawn began as a necessity–I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama–and that was always around five in the morning.” (The Art of Fiction, no, 134).

Read. If you can’t find the space to write you can always do this. Stephen King says “I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”

Be realistic. Give yourself a modest, child-accommodating daily word count that you can easily reach. Then congratulate yourself and go and have fun!

 

 

How I found my literary agent

So I have a literary agent: Anne Williams of the Kate Hordern Literary Agency. How did that happen, I have been asked. Isn’t that really hard?

I know I am incredibly lucky. I also know that I have worked incredibly hard, though that doesn’t automatically entitle me to anything. My badger book has been on the go for a couple of years. I have lived and breathed it through that time; it’s a part of me and I am still writing notes on my badger encounters. It has also had that ‘time in the drawer’ that’s always recommended, though, in my case, more through accident than design. Months ago I had a literary agent chase me, which I sat on for a bit, but that’s another story. When I was ready he was about to change agencies, and then went off the boil. That’s okay – I think now I wasn’t right for him. You want an agent to be so certain about your work, and I don’t think he could have been about mine. Anne, on the other hand, said she knew straight away. She was lightning-quick with her responses and left the other agents way behind. Oh yes, the other agents. I had drawn up a shortlist of five with some input from a knowledgeable friend, and over the course of a couple of days wrote to them all.

So how did I find out about Anne? I searched for agents interested in new nature writing and a few names came up. I read her wishlist and then knew she was worth pursuing. She mentioned two of my favourite nature writers whose work I had recently put on a uni module and taught. My heart then started to beat a little faster. To the top of my list she went. Just to be absolutely certain, I read what articles I could about her, any interviews or related blogs that I could find before approaching her by email.

Anne was quick to request the full manuscript. While she was reading I heard from the other four, and three of them wanted the rest soon after. There was one very enthusiastic young agent from CB who totally charmed me, and an agent representing many UK nature writers who told me she would read, but there would be a delay as she was very busy.

Anne came back with a positive email in just under three weeks, having read the complete manuscript. We arranged to talk on the phone, when she sounded me out more fully and said she’d like to offer me representation. I was thrilled.

Since then we have met in London and chatted about the book in detail. I have also written to those agents and told them the news. That was a scary moment, but I feel sure I am in the best possible hands. I know some people would have chased the other agents and stirred things up, but I had already heard from my first choice. I guess if I was unsure about her I could have stalled for time, but all of this feels quite underhand and wasn’t needed anyway.

I know that this is just the beginning and the hard work begins here. Hearing the news has brought renewed energy though – I have already got back to the manuscript and the ideas are firing.

If you are reading this and wanting to find an agent, be encouraged. Write what you love, and let the first draft be wholly for yourself, you don’t need an audience in mind at all. Then, when you’ve been through your work several times, have run home for it, edited and lost sleep, ask yourself if it’s as good as it possibly can be. That is the point when you need to look for your agent. Good luck!

‘I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life… if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.’ Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald.

 

For the love of sparrows

This house sparrow was caught on our Bushnell nature cam, seed in her mouth, her relaxed feet hanging loose as her wings do what comes naturally to them, beating perhaps fifteen times a second. These short wings allow for a quick lift off, though she’s not built for speed, rather a swift exit when the neighbourhood cats are out. For once the humble sparrow looked exotic to me, like a new species of bat or four-winged bird.

We are lucky here, our garden could be known as sparrow central, and my nine-year-old counted nineteen of them during the Big Garden Bird Watch. They like nesting in our old eaves, and for me, they signify home. They are seen from the moment I lift the latch on the front gate, witnessed from every window, heard tweeting on the roof via the wood-burner in the sitting room. Our space is theirs, and generations of sparrows have grown up here, for they do not venture far. It is said that the fiercely defended territory of a male sparrow ‘really only consists of the nesting hole and a very small area around it.’ (BTO)

There is a danger that, like all things familiar, the humble sparrow is taken for granted. It’s an age-old problem; in Luke’s gospel Jesus says, ‘Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.’ Then they were sold for sacrifice.

In England from the 1700s (and perhaps earlier) they were so plentiful they were considered a pest by farmers, and there was a bounty on their heads; Sparrow Clubs existed, not as appreciation societies but with the sole purpose of killing as many as possible, while parish payments were available to anyone producing evidence.  The Stone Street Club near me in Kent lasted until 2003, though perhaps in name only. These clubs often collected rats tails too, which may account for this local group’s longevity.

Now sparrows are protected in the UK, though not all of Europe is quite so respectful. A student in one of my creative writing groups told me of an experience that disturbed her as a child. In Italy when she grew up, she said, sparrows were a delicacy and commonly eaten. She can still remember the horrid crunch of the little bones. She was made to sit there and eat, though her father would get up and walk out. Now she won’t touch poultry. I completely understand.

If, like me, you are alarmed by the sparrow’s rapid decline, consider what you can do to help them. If your house doesn’t hold nooks for them to nest in, think about putting up a sparrow nesting box. These are of a specific design – think of the sparrow’s sense of community – and look like a small bird terrace with at least three holes. Mealworms are thought to provide sparrow chicks with an increased chance of survival, and avoid pesticides in your garden, as there will be less insects for your sparrows to feed on. Introduce a wild zone in your garden, where you let things go. Choose butterfly-attracting plants and allow flower heads to go to seed.

Footnotes:

Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife by Roger Lovegrove

https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds/a-z-garden-birds/house-sparrow

Luke 12:6-7.

sparrow-1617709_640

Out-pranking a nine-year-old

Lion, Drink, Zoo, Cat

 

A Saturday morning and a voice calls out from the downstairs loo – ‘It’s like a murder scene in here, ketchup everywhere. Clean it up Jemima.’

Rupert is getting ready for work, and none too pleased. Now he’s joining me in the upstairs bathroom. ‘Sorry, can I just get in and wash my hands? She’s got it everywhere, handprints on the door, smears all over the basin.’

I head downstairs, my routine can wait, and I need my early morning tea. Jemima has an eager look on her face, like she’s expecting something.

Then I realize.

‘Jem, there’s ketchup all over the milk! This isn’t how you do April Fools.’

‘It is.’

‘It’s really not, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.’

‘No, you have.’

The argument escalates and I send her up to her room, then find myself distracted by the dishwasher that needs emptying. But soon enough I open the cupboard for the tea bags, and am showered in home-made confetti. This time I do actually laugh, a severe headache hasn’t been helping my sense of humour failure.

She’d rigged a toilet tube inside the cupboard, attaching it with wool to the door, so that once opened the contents fall on an unsuspecting head. Snippets of wool, the contents of the hole-punch and a rubber crab litter the work surface and fall from my hair.

I think it’s my turn. What can I possibly do? I like the story of the washing of the lions, a prank in the 1800s, when, it was claimed, lions were ceremonially bathed in the moat outside the Tower of London. A quick search on the internet and I’m looking at a ticket online – it is stamped by a Perry B Greville. There’s scope here for a family yarn, perhaps Rupert will feel like taking this on when he’s in a better mood.

Jemima might fool for it, but she’d be expecting a trip to London, and it’s not the day for it. It does need to be something visual for her, something immediate. I know. I type in a few words and I’m all set.

‘Jemima, I’ve got something to show you.’

The sound of a small stampede and she’s back downstairs.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s about a special harvest, I thought you might be interested. It happens about now.’

‘Ooh.’

She climbs up onto the sofa and pulls her knees into her chest, expecting a nice long viewing.

‘Is that what spaghetti looks like when it’s growing?’

‘I guess so,’ I say, in a non-committal kind of way. If she glances at my face I’m sprung. I try to smile on one side of my face only, it sort of works.

‘I want to eat it straight off the tree.’

‘It would be nice, wouldn’t it?’

The clip ends and she hasn’t guessed.

‘That was a bit boring,’ she says.

That was a bit easy, I think to myself.

She’s in the kitchen banging cupboards again. I wonder what’s next.

‘Oh, I spent ages doing that,’ she says.

I join her and see her looking into her now empty toilet role tube.

‘That was a good one,’ I tell her. ‘It was the surprise of it. It’s not meant to be a terrible shock.’

‘Oh.’

I grab a pen and notepad and start my shopping list. ‘Spaghetti,’ I write at the top. I’ll cook it tonight, then I really should tell her. But I might not.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmZNcg0t_Hs

 

 

International Random Acts of Kindness Day

kindness

Februrary 17th, 2017. Mark the date and be on your guard. Today is the day ‘gestures of kindness’ will be performed in our unsuspecting communities: International Random Acts of Kindness Day is here. The picture above is of course very heart-warming. But my stomach is turning in anticipation of people following up on the official suggestions – I don’t want a stranger to give me a hug, or to tell me how nice I look today. That’s just plain weird. I don’t even want the person in front of me to pay for my groceries. Not surprisingly this idea stems from a cliché on a placemat in California: ‘practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.’ I think what gets to me is the pre-conceivedness of it – shouldn’t we always be on the look out for ways to help a stranger? I guess I’m happy with it if it’s a consistent outlook, and our actions will make a genuine difference to someone. The real danger is that we will just make them cringe.

I have just told Jemima, my eight-year-old about it, and now I wonder if I am being a little harsh. ‘Oh, Mr H did this,’ she replied. ‘He’s the best teacher ever. He paid an old lady’s parking fine. He had some money left so he bought someone a coffee.’ I want to know if this was really in response to a day like this, or if he’s just a nice guy. From what I know of him I think it’s the latter.

Selflessness has to be one of the most admirable traits. The literary character who impressed me the most in my teenage years was Sydney Carton, Dickens’ drunkard-turned-good lawyer in A Tale of Two Cities. He still does, though I’ve encountered a few more to rival him. Perhaps I like him now for his reluctance to people-please early in the novel – he “care[s] for no man on earth and no man on earth cares for [him]”. Yes, I know that’s not at all selfless, and I wouldn’t love him so if he stayed like this. He reminds me that no one is set in their flaws forever. Carton disguises himself as his friend and goes to the guillotine in his place. In a Christ-like resignation he sacrifices all that he is for the happiness of others. We read, ‘They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.’

We like to feel reassured about human nature in real life, too. Last month there was the news story about Alex from Reading whose bicycle was stolen. He wrote a note and taped it to the scene of the crime, and soon a kind woman began crowd-funding for him. You can watch a clip online as the replacement bike is given to him.

Selflessness is not exclusively a human trait, though many scientists argue that animal ‘kindness’ is merely a display of altruism. I like to think that there is some generosity in the equation. Vampire bats give blood to those in their group who haven’t eaten in a few days. Long-tailed tits sometimes rear their siblings children, rather than attempt a new brood of their own. Occasionally we read of a swimmer saved from a shark by a dolphin, or watch a bird revive another bird as I have today. These instances are at their most beautiful when they are not the norm, but prompted by a spontaneous urge that makes us think ‘I want to be like that’. I hope it will never be because an international organization has told us to.

Clip filmed in Saudi Arabia and posted on LiveLeak. Please let me know if this is your footage and I will attribute more fully!

The Secret Life of Sheep

https://i2.wp.com/thefamilywithoutborders.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/10_New_Zealand_Wildlife_Sheep-650x433.jpg

The other day I witnessed a display of sheep affection. A potato field has been given over to a flock of sheep, and there at the edge two ewes stood nose to muzzle in a lingering moment of closeness. They were in no hurry to move on, clearly enjoying each other’s company. I had to head home, and left the sheep to their togetherness. Perhaps they are there still. Then there was the fun-loving sheep today, running alongside the car and shaking its head with that girl-in-a-shampoo-ad motion. I wondered if it had a brain injury, sadly, or or if it were the ‘wild child’ of the flock.

We like to think of sheep as all the same, assume we know ‘the character of sheep’, that there is nothing more to tell. But these are not the only times I have found sheep betraying their conventional image. No longer are they docile and stupid in my mind, but misunderstood. In fact, I think they have the intelligence to portray themselves as one thing, giving themselves a cover to be something altogether different.

Have you seen the clip of sheep bounding along a line of hay bales? These are no ordinary bales, but between five and seven feet in diameter, and the sheep jump aboard like they are well-practiced – except this time Joe Blogs has his video camera. A momentary slip in the usual sheep-are-trustworthy cover, but then even phones film these days. I think the sheep can be forgiven for not noticing, especially as the bales had been laid out in such a tempting fashion.

My sheep suspicion has led me into a little research and my theories have been confirmed. A report in the National Geographic (2001) tells of the Cambridge Babraham Institute discovery that sheep can identify faces (fifty,to be precise) and remember them for two years or more. I wish they would give me the training. Then there are sheep that tackle mazes. In 1925 Howard S. Liddell wrote up his study, ‘The Behaviour of Sheep and Goats in Learning a Simple Maze’, research that has been tested more recently in Australia. Closer to home, sheep in the Yorkshire Moors have learnt how to roll over metal cattle grids and so avail themselves of the locals’ garden produce. You have to admire them for it.

I wonder if our concept of well-behaved, law abiding sheep comes from the Biblical view of them – ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ – and all those pastoral scenes in which sheep are of course still. How many of us have bothered to watch them long enough to see what they really get up to? They just look so darned innocent, a little vacant, and let’s be honest, dim.