It’s a kind of magic

January 29, 2017 § 2 Comments

biscuits

I spent today in a pleasurable haze of writing and baking, the smells of cinnamon and vanilla wafting through the house like a prayer as my fingers rapped out an irregular rhythm, making words, painting sentences, telling stories.

I love the alchemy of baking. I love that you take the simplest of ingredients – flour, sugar, butter, eggs – and create something that is at first unprepossessing, but later transforms into something new with the simple addition of  heat. I love the warmth it adds to the air, the slow motion rising and reshaping, like a live time-lapse video behind the oven’s glass screen.

And there are many similarities between baking and writing, even if the ingredients and tools are not the same.

Of all the culinary arts, baking is the most precise. Too much butter and your cake will be limp; too much flour and it will be dry and dull. Add moisture to the raising agent too soon, and the bubbles meant to lift the batter into mouthwatering softness will evaporate into thin air before they can do their work.

Just as the baker mixes together the right quantity of this and that, the writer must take those most ordinary building blocks of communication – words – and meld them together in just the right combination, just the right order. The baker stirs to combine. The writer combines to stir.

Neither will be rushed. Of course you can speed up how quickly you measure and mix both the batter and your words, but you run the risk of disturbing their balance. There’s a delicate chemistry and process to both, which must be honoured.

And it’s so important to get the temperature right. Too hot and your cookies burn; too cold and they’re doughy and raw. So it is with writing: too much rewriting and your words are brittle and scorched; too little, and they’re turgid and pale. Somewhere in the middle, you learn to leave them alone, to let them find their own rhythm across the page – sauntering here, marching there, meandering sometimes, or coming to a brisk stop.

In baking and in writing, you also learn that sometimes you just don’t get it right. Sometimes it flops despite your best efforts, and you simply scrape it all into the bin and try again. Because you still have your building blocks – flour, butter, eggs, words. You will measure them all again, combine them in the right order, and produce something better next time.

Most of all, you learn that what you produce will never be perfect. One biscuit will be slightly bigger than another; that chocolate cake always rises slightly more on one side; this vanilla flan tends to sink in the middle. And every time you read what you’ve written, you’ll see a new, better way you could have expressed this or that.

But ultimately as long as the eater – or the reader – enjoys what you’ve produced, those tiny imperfections become completely unimportant.

 

* The topic for this post was suggested by Gus Silber, a friend, colleague and devoted fan of cinnamon buns, who would be a master baker if he baked half as well as he writes.

 

 

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The long and the short

December 14, 2016 Comments Off on The long and the short

There’s a great scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral right near the beginning, at the reception of the first wedding, where Charles and his friend, Fiona, are chatting.

The dialogue goes like this: 

CHARLES: Any idea who the girl in the black hat is?

FIONA: Name’s Carrie.

CHARLES: She’s pretty.

FIONA: American.

CHARLES: Interesting.

FIONA: Slut.

CHARLES: Really?

And with just those few words and a quizzical eyebrow from Hugh Grant, a whole story is told.

There’s a tendency among some writers – professional and amateur – to use far too many words. Many words, they think, will make them seem more clever, more profound, more ‘writerly’.

But writing short is much more difficult, because you can’t explain yourself endlessly. You have to choose that one precise word that will tell a whole story; conjure up an exact image, stoke a compelling emotion.

There’s a quote that’s been attributed to Twain, Lincoln and Hemingway, among others, along the lines of, “I’m sorry this letter is so long; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Whatever the source, that quote holds great truth. Good concise writing takes time and a craftsman’s touch.

And if you still don’t believe me, here’s a famous six-word story, usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway, which has spawned a genre online. Urban legend has it that he wrote this after a wager with other writers: his authorship is unsubstantiated, but I like to believe it’s true. And anyway, it’s a great story.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Tell me again how that thing you wrote is too short to say what you need to say?

It takes a village

November 5, 2014 § 6 Comments

I have two books in production at the moment, and today I had to write the acknowledgements for one of them.

As I sat quietly in the school parking lot, crafting those words of gratitude on my iPad, it struck me that just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise a book too.

The process of writing a book is often compared to the jourrney of pregnancy and childbirth. The book starts off as the merest germ of an idea, and then word by word, you build it. It is shaped and moulded in the womb of your mind, and eventually you give birth to that final manuscript and the production process begins.

And that’s where the village kicks in. Because while I can string together a sentence or two, and I know a bit about layout, print production and marketing, the bits that don’t involve writing and editing are not my areas of expertise. And so I have to hand my child over to a village of co-caretakers, who will help to take the infant manuscript and turn it into a fully-fledged book.

It’s a magical process, one of co-creation and collaboration, and damn hard work, frankly. But it also involves a fair amount of trust and relinquishing control – two things I’m not terribly good at.

But oh, the rewards! There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finally holding your own book in your hands, feeling its heft and the sharpness of hot-off-the-press pages; hearing the faint snap of the spine as you open it, and inhaling the fragrance of paper and ink. As a writer, nothing makes me happier.

So two of my written children are almost grown up. I can’t wait to see how they turn out.

On bad writing

October 1, 2014 § 14 Comments

There’s some writing advice I’ve been dispensing often of late, and it’s this: write badly. Odd, I know, from someone who writes for a living and coaches other writers, but it’s the best way to overcome that “Aaaaaaargh! I’ll never get this damn thing written!” feeling.

Without wanting to brag, I’m a bit of a writing machine. As long as I have a brief – the briefest of briefs, even – I can pretty much sit down and write something decent, no matter how I’m feeling. But every now and then, I can’t. And I’ve finally figured out what the problem is: perfectionism!

Every single time I can’t write, it’s because I’m utterly terrified I won’t be able to produce Good Writing. As if I get one go at it. As if I chip every word out of the Rock of Gibraltar and then that’s it. Posterity will witness my shame forever. (I have a flair for the dramatic.)

But here’s the thing – there’s a backspace key on my computer. And the option to cut, copy, paste and edit until it’s as good as I can get it. And it’s never going to be perfect – there’s always something you can change or improve.

So when people tell me they are struggling to write something now, I tell them to write badly. Because, most often, the hardest part of writing something is getting started. And most excellent writing doesn’t just flow from the writer’s brain fully formed – it is edited and rewritten and rejigged and tweaked and crafted into a thing (hopefully) of beauty.

And then, when it’s been printed or published somewhere, every writer I know will look at it again and wish they’d left out that word, or inserted a comma just there, or rephrased that paragraph completely. It will never be perfect.

So stop hankering after perfection, or even Good Writing. The thing is just to start. Get the words on the page, and keep going. And then leave them there for a bit and get some distance from them for a couple of hours at least. By the time you come back to them you’ll be able to see what needs fixing, I promise you.

Don’t give up on writing just because you’re struggling with the words. Start. Write badly. You can always fix it.

Freelancing: the key to happiness

June 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

* Note: This blog was written as part of the Elance Blogathon at the Common Room in Parkhurst, Johannesburg. Other entries may be viewed at http://www.urbanrevolt.co.za.

Imagine the freelance life. You sleep till the sun softly pokes a finger around your curtains. You stretch, you yawn, you stroke the dog gently sleeping beside your bed. You stumble to the kitchen for the finest arabica coffee, and enjoy it outside on the terrace, where geraniums spill out of terracotta pots onto the paving around you, and the sparrows hop hopefully under the table.

Then it’s time for some yoga, or perhaps some tai chi. You breakfast on croissants and apricot preserves, take a steaming bubble bath, and settle down to work in your new silk pyjamas, the ivory ones with grey piping on the edges. But you’ll just tinker for an hour or two. After all, there’s that fabulous new movie showing at the local arthouse, and you simply must see it today…

And then you wake up and your tea is cold. Stone cold and slightly murky. But you drink the dregs anyway – because you can’t afford to waste the tea bag.

The key to happiness if you’re a freelancer, you see, is to lower your expectations. No, lower… a little lower… yes, that low. About as low as you can go… perfect. Basically, if a Russian circus acrobat couldn’t do the limbo under those expectations you’ve hit the right spot.

So come a little closer while I tell you a tale. A day in the life of a freelancer goes something like this…

5.15am: Press ‘snooze’ on your alarm at least three times and stumble to the kitchen in the dark. You have to save electricity, after all. It’s damn expensive.

5.30am: Have a cup of the best instant coffee you can afford. Have another. You worked till midnight and it’s bloody early. You deserve a second cup. Maybe even a third. Run out of milk and decide today’s the day you’ll start drinking your coffee black.

5.45am: Settle down at your computer and answer your emails. Yes, even the one from that annoying client who micro-manages your every freaking move. Be polite, be sweet, be patient. If it’s cold, put your ratty robe on over your pyjamas. And thick socks. Damn. You really need to buy new socks. These are really looking threadbare.

6.15 am: Work. It’s too early to eat breakfast anyway, and there are deadlines to meet. Besides, the working world will wake up soon, and then you’ll be fielding calls and queries every five minutes.

7. 30am: Breakfast. Toast is the easiest, so today you’ll have peanut butter for a bit of variety. Ooh, look at you, splashing out with apricot jam as well – but only the smooth sort; it may not even be made of actual apricots. Still, it fills the gap.

8am: You should probably get dressed. Nah, not today. You’re not seeing any clients anyway, and these Hello Kitty pyjamas might be frayed, but they’re friendly. Back to work .

9am: Read the entire Internet. Yes, all of it. You cannot possibly afford to miss anything – it might be essential to your work, you know. Essential.

11am: Time for more coffee. Can it be so long since you had the last cup? You’d better do something productive, so you call that client who hasn’t paid you from six months ago. Oh, and the other three from two months ago, and the one from last month. Sigh. Bloody clients. Can’t live with them, can’t get them to pay on time.

11.30am: Smile grimly at the excuses you’ve heard  a gazillion times. Realise your jaw has locked into the tooth-gritting position again. Hold your coffee cup against it in the hope the heat will release the spasm. Gaze out of the window for a bit.

11.4oam: Tinker with a something you’re supposed to be doing. It doesn’t go well. Pick something else . Oh hell, you need to tweet and be on Facebook as well. Apparently a social media presence is good for your profile, but no Actual Work has materialised as a result yet.

12.40pm: Damn. You really should get to work, but it’s practically lunchtime. You’d might as well eat something, keep up your strength. A salad would be nice, but you only have a tin of baked beans and half an avocado that’s slightly black… Besides, you tell the dog, “I never could stand rocket.”

1.30pm: Fall asleep on the couch, drooling slightly.

5pm:. Wake up from a horrific public nudity dream, your heart pounding.

5.10pm: Work, drink coffee, answer queries, bite your tongue, shift in your seat. Forget to eat dinner.

11.49pm: Shut down your laptop and crawl into bed, ready to do it all again tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

It’s complicated

June 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

I was scrabbling around for a topic for today’s blog earlier, and my friend Cath suggested I try to answer a question she’d been asked: “Why do you write?” It’s a question I’m asked fairly often, and I’m never quite sure how to answer. Because mostly, it’s complicated.

I’m supposed to be in television journalism or production – that’s the stream I chose during my journalism degree. I didn’t see myself as much of a writer, to be honest. So I learnt how to zoom, track and pan a camera, switch between cameras on a vision mixing board, and edit pictures and sound.

I ended up writing quite by accident – the only job I could get vaguely in the television world was at a trade publication for the TV and film industries. And here I am today, several steps later, a freelance journalist who writes about health. It’s a funny old thing, life.

But it’s a complicated question to answer because I do so many kinds of writing, so I thought it’d be fun (for me, anyway) to look at the four main kinds of writing I do, and explore each one. If you read any further than this, I’ll be impressed. I’ll also keep it short for you two, dear readers…

1. Health journalism: I love health journalism because I love the challenge of taking complicated medical and health science information and making them accessible – yet accurate – for readers. The thing is, there’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to health. A lot of fads, a lot of unadulterated crap. So I see my role as that of questioner on your behalf. I ask the difficult questions, get second and third and fourth opinions where required, and always, always ask for evidence to back up the claims people make. I come across as evangelical, crusading sometimes, but I’m okay with that. It’s my job.

2. Blogging: This here weekly ‘column’ I inflict on all of you is purely self-indulgent; my challenge to myself to produce a piece of non-work-related writing once a week. I’m having fun with it, because it’s one hundred percent my space. And no-one is more surprised than I am when anyone reads it. So, thanks, if you’re one of the people who reads my meanderings – you amaze me on a weekly basis.

3. Fiction: Yes, like all those writers who think they have a novel inside of them, I’ve recently completed one. The thing is, I didn’t think I had one in me and then I went on a creative writing course and discovered I could write small scenes quite well. And then I realised that a novel was no more than a string of scenes, so if I just wrote one scene at a time…

A couple of years and 86 000 words later, it is currently doing the slush pile sashay. We’ll see if any publishers bite: you can be sure I’ll let you know with the appropriate fanfare if they do. But let me say this – it is by far the hardest form of writing I have ever done. I’ve published a non-fiction book, ghostwritten another and I can churn out a magazine feature in record time, but fiction is really, really difficult, and yet, utterly addictive.

4. Songwriting: If I could pick one form of writing to do all day, every day, this would be it. Nothing gives me more joy than finishing a song I’m happy with. Music is my healer, and I love the challenge of writing beautiful lyrics that match a melody, that rhyme and scan without seeming contrived, underpinned by music that rises and falls in just the right way, at just the right time. It’s so constrained, yet so creative. Songwriting is the writing my heart does. It fills me up like nothing else.

But if I had to give a general answer, I suppose it would be this: I just love words. I love the way you can bend them to your will, expand, contract and manipulate them till they sing – literally sometimes. I love the way they roll off my tongue and onto the page. I love the mini-mazes they make on a page if you blur your eyes and look for the white spaces between them. I love how you can give a bunch of different writers the same language, and the same topic and each will produce something completely different. I love their weight, their lightness, their darkness and shade.

Mostly, I love the way they are the yarn that knits our stories together. And what are we, if not the sum of our stories? The art – and the joy, for me – is in telling them well.

Making space

May 14, 2014 § 5 Comments

I should not be writing this blog post.

I’ve just returned from a meeting with someone who wants his book edited. I have another book to write by the end of August. I need to send my own novel out to do the slush pile sashay and a recipe book sitting at an e-publisher that I really must follow up on. I have a couple of small bloggy-type pieces to write for one of my clients. I have a business writing course to design. I’m hatching a plot to record some of my songs, and writing new ones in what feels like a mad frenzy. I want to do a life coaching course, but I haven’t had time to look for one. My office is a disaster. My home admin is non-existent. I don’t have the time to write this blog post.

And I am as happy as the proverbial pig in mud.

A little over a year ago I sat in Judy Klipin’s office and sobbed for an hour. I was burnt out – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I think I probably sobbed for most of the first four or five sessions while Judy listened and passed the tissues.

At some point I remember her asking me what my ideal working life would look like, and I answered that I’d like to be writing books, predominantly. I didn’t mind doing a bit of journalism, but I loved the substantial body of work that a book gives one, the sense of achievement when you hold it in your hand. I’d like to continue teaching writing as well, I said. I love seeing someone’s face light up when they finally get it.

So, look at my to-do list again. Admin and tidying aside, largely I’m doing everything I want to do, and more. And the songwriting is just the lushest, plumpest, darkest, juice-running-down-your-chin cherry on the cake. Nothing makes me happier than producing a song I’m proud of.

How did I get here? By making space. With Judy’s help I put down all the things that weren’t serving me, all those things that were draining the life out of me, that I was doing out of a sense of duty or guilt or any number of other negative emotions.

I’ve had a fallow period since I did that, one where having nothing to occupy me in the evenings has been the weirdest sensation on earth. Because I’m a doer. Like my grandmother, I always have Things To Do.

But now, after a long recovery period and plenty of time to think and ruminate and plot and plan, I feel like I’m back. Like I’m me. I’m starting to dress like me again, I’m thinking like me, I’m speaking like me, I’m doing the things I like to do. And mostly importantly, I’m giving myself the space – the permission – to be whoever I want to be. It scares the hell out of me, but I’m doing it anyway.

And that, dear friends, is the very best feeling in the world.

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