There is a place where the sky is
amazingly, truly blue
always perfect summer
floral silk flutters in a warm breeze.
Tea and cake on elegant lawns. We watch
the world go by.
And in this place
the string quartet plays on
all worries fade to leave us
We float on half-heard conversations
skirt around the deep
drown in the shallows while our hearts
More cake? Yes please
this sponge is rather good.
And no amount of genteel words can fill
the gaps and missing parts
but yes, a fine day, a fine day indeed, yes
I heard, it’s such wonderful news.
Lips moving, tasting, swallowing
a full portion
of nothing at all.
In order to write the book you want to write, in the end you have to become the person you need to become to write that book. Junot Diaz
I know your secret.
You want to share your secret — but also you’ll never tell, because then the truth would be known and you’re not ready for that.
It’s time to reveal yourself.
You’re a writer. There, I said it.
Are you already blushing and stuttering, denying what you know is true? Maybe feeling a bit angry at being exposed? Then read on, because you need to fix this immediately.
But Are You Though?
If you can’t stop thinking about it, don’t stop working for it. Michael Jordan
Most writers realise their calling when still young, though some come to it later. Hobbies and interests come and go but those of childhood have a tendency to remain, even if they’re driven underground by adult responsibilities.
Some avid readers remain just that, while others start making up their own stories. You might not have written a word for years, yet the idea nags at you. You keep a journal or scribble bits of poetry when you feel sad. You read novels and think you could do as well — if not better.
These moments can be the beginning of a writing career if you go from thought to action. Dreaming gets you nowhere, you must act. Talking about it, thinking about it, or planning it isn’t enough.
A chef doesn’t serve a raw pie. A surgeon doesn’t down tools halfway through closing a wound. And a writer finishes what she starts, no matter how hard it is.
Stephen King said that if you’ve paid a bill with money earned from writing, then you can call yourself a writer. That’s true for a professional, but we all have different goals and money is only one.
A writer has an itch, a compulsion, a need to express themselves in words.That’s you, and you want to know how to own it.
Not In Public
Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards. Robert Heinlein
So you want to call yourself a writer, but something is holding you back. Perhaps you remember being dismissed or ridiculed by someone whose opinion mattered — a parent, teacher or friend. They told you writing poetry was banal and writing romance was pathetic wish-fulfilment.
They told you your words were no good, and by extension, you were no good.The resulting shame caused you to bury writing where nobody could find it and use it against you.
Things are different now. You’re grown, and nobody can tell you what to do. These wounds run deep but you can heal them without therapy.
Recall what was said and who said it
Write it down
Write a letter to that person telling them they were wrong
Burn or tear up the letter
Anyone can write, just as anyone can cook. But not everyone can do it well. Maybe you think you’re not good enough because you’re not Neil Gaiman or Stephen Covey yet.
You must practise. Write a thousand words, then ten thousand more. Make writing a central part of your life so that it becomes familiar. Lose your fear of the thing you love and get good.
No Words To Say
Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. Neil Gaiman
Imagine this scene. You’re at a social gathering and someone you know asks, “So I hear that you write, what are you working on?” They smile encouragingly. What do you do?
Flight — you get away as soon as possible without answering
Fight — you deny it or make some self-deprecating remark
Freeze — you’re terrified and unable to speak
You’re a writer and words are your tools. It’s time to use them.
You need two stories; one for you and one for your work.
Picture yourself as a confident writer. If that’s too difficult, create an alter ego (why do you think authors use pen names? Just for anonymity?) A superhero writer who looks like you but acts like she was born to do this.
Now ask yourself WWSMD? What would Super Me do?
She’d face her questioner and smile. Then she’d say something like, “That’s so kind of you to ask. I’m working on some short stories/ editing my novel/ posting on my blog.”
When the follow-up questions come, she’s ready with the address of her blog and an elevator pitch for her book. She isn’t ashamed of who she is. But she isn’t her work either; it’s part of her life, not her whole being.
So use your skills and write those stories. Write the description of you as you are now, making the best of your position. A single sentence should do. Make it active and avoid using the word ‘try’. “I’m writing a YA novel in my spare time.”
“I’m blogging about gardening.”
Then write the next part, where you anticipate the follow-up questions. Be vague; say it’s at an early stage, or in editing, or that you plan to find an agent in the future.
If someone is asking personal questions like how much money you’ve made, don’t get angry or embarrassed. Find words that you can say with a smile, then change the subject.
“When I make my first million, I’ll let you know!”
Writing an elevator pitch is a great exercise for any novelist and forces you to condense your story into its essentials. Try it, and you’ll find it easier to write queries, blurbs, and synopses.
Do not put yourself down by saying that your writing isn’t serious, or that you’re no good. Nobody wants to hear that. Don’t apologise. Avoid any opinion, just stick to the objective facts.
I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear. Rosa Parks
Fear is at the heart of our troubles.
We don’t tell the truth about our work and ourselves because we fear an imaginary outcome. As writers, we’re blessed and cursed with well-developed imaginations, full of monsters and disaster.
It’s never as bad as you think it will be.
Practise in low-risk settings first. Try out your routine on a trusted friend, in the same way Chris Rock tests his routine in small clubs before going on tour. Tweak and adjust until you feel happy with it.
As you get more confident, expand your arena. Last year my online writing group produced an anthology of short stories. Each writer was tasked with getting people to be part of the street team who would be early reviewers. Did I want to approach people and ask for something? Hell no.
After I calmed down, I wrote a short Facebook post that started with, “As some of you may know, I am a writer.” Writing it down was less scary than speaking it out loud. Two surprising things happened.
First, lots of people agreed to be part of the launch — not always the ones I expected.
And second, I introduced myself to my social network as a writer, and the sky did not fall. In fact, it became much easier to say it in person.
Claim Your Title
Claiming your title as a writer is simple.
Write stuff — and finish it.
Release old programming that doesn’t work for you anymore.
Write your story of the new you.
Practice makes perfect.
Soon you won’t need an alter ego because you will become Super Me, proud writer and not afraid to say it.
Go on, you can do it. Start today.
(first published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium 21 July 2019)
When your house is on fire you grab your prized possessions and run. But when the world is on fire, there’s nowhere to run. Faced with the constant stream of bad news, you could be forgiven for simply giving up.
What’s the point of your life’s mission when everything’s going to hell? Your tiny contribution can’t hold back an endless ocean of misery.
It’s so hard to keep going when you’re not succeeding like you hoped, so you might as well binge on ice cream or gin or Netflix.
What’s the point of creating?
A Day In A Life
We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever. Carl Sagan
We’re given only a limited time to make a life. Life has the meaning you give it, no more or less. Meaning comes from finding and using them to do your thing despite all the negativity.
There’s someone out there who needs your thing, right now. That could be entertainment, the tools to do a job, or a map to navigate heartbreak. They see themselves in your thing and it gives them hope.
I once wrote a scene in which two gay men argued about being their authentic selves. A woman sent me a long comment saying she wept, thinking back to the compromises she made in earlier life. She felt it was her story, and for a moment she was less alone.
Emotional connection transcends time, gender, or place. Without connection and authentic feeling we wither and die. That might sound a bit dramatic when you look at a blog post or poem you just wrote, but you can’t know the state of the person who receives your message.
Who knows what your creation could achieve?
The Small Stuff Is The Big Stuff
If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way. Napoleon Hill
Think back to a time when you read something that spoke to you. There was probably nothing Pulitzer-worthy about the content in itself. Yet on that day and for you particularly, those words sparked a feeling or a memory. You felt as though someone reached into your chest and peeled away the layers protecting a soft spot.
You felt seen and heard.
Those words were written for you, even though the writer didn’t know that. Like a singer who shatters a glass with a high note, words resonate with a frequency that the heart answers.
Now consider all the myriad ways we struggle each day. We carry our pain and that of others. We try to live a good life. We try to be happy. But often we fail. That’s when we need help.
Create something that can help, even if you don’t see how. Offer perspective, advice, or encouragement. Share your tools, your story and your gifts.
Remind people that there’s always beauty and hope to be found, even if you have to dig through dirt to find it. Remind people that the sun is hidden behind dark clouds, not gone completely.
The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.
George Bernard Shaw
Imagine you’re going to a party. You know the host and a couple of other guests. There will be drinks. There will be small talk.
Are you excited to meet all those new people? Or are you shrinking away in horror and already thinking about faking peritonitis to get out of it?
You’re not alone.
There are two kinds of people in this world. The first go by the Irish principle of strangers being friends they haven’t met yet. And the second live by Sartre’s principle that hell is other people. Unfortunately for the latter, they also have to socialise at least occasionally.
Good conversation is like a well-paced game of tennis, neither too fast to return serve, nor failing to return and letting the ball drop. Here are ten tips to help you raise your game, whichever camp you’re in.
1. Assume rapport
Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk. Doug Larson
If you struggle with talking to strangers, approach them as though they’re someone you know. Assume you already have a friendly connection. Drop your shoulders, breathe out, offer a smile or a brief but firm handshake as appropriate. Odds are they feel the same about you, and you’re not intimidating, are you?
2. Listen more
We have two ears and one tongue that we might listen more and talk less. Diogenes
Most people wait until the other stops speaking and then weigh in with their own observations. Active listening is a technique that aims to ensure the speaker feels heard. And since most people want to talk about themselves, they will think you’re great if you let them. Listen, acknowledge by gestures such as nodding, and then summarise what they said before responding. Try, “So what you’re saying is…”
3. Avoid interrogation
The primary use of conversation is to satisfy the impulse to talk. George Santayana
A rapid-fire series of questions isn’t just hard to respond to, but can come across as aggressive. Relax and let them answer one question at a time. Remember you’re meant to be listening, and if your questions come in a constant stream you aren’t really listening or responding.
4. Don’t choke
That’s all small talk is – a quick way to connect on a human level – which is why it is by no means as irrelevant as the people who are bad at it insist. In short, it’s worth making the effort. Lynn Coady
It’s easy to mock small talk about the weather, the game, or property prices, but they’re safe and universal subjects to get things started. You might fear you have nothing to say, but there’s always something. Look at the local newspaper or trade magazine before you arrive to see what the hot topics are. If you don’t watch the current big thing on TV, have something else to talk about in books or movies.
We draw a great deal of meaning from the way speech is delivered. Practice a stance you’re comfortable with and avoid closed body language. The words are often less important than tone, speed, and clarity of speech.
Breathe evenly. Adjust your volume to match the room. Speaking too fast will lose your listener, and too slow will bore them. Keep your point in mind so that you don’t meander and lose the thread of your statement.
Some people are effortlessly funny, some are unintentionally funny, and then there’s the rest of us. Comedians are masters of timing, but even they practise their material in low stakes situations before headlining their national tour. Avoid telling jokes unless you’re confident, but laugh at them whenever possible.
6. No monologues
A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet. Truman Capote
Even if you’re the most knowledgeable person on the topic being discussed, avoid monopolising the conversation. You don’t know what other people know and you risk coming over as arrogant. Remember that conversation is a game in which both parties speak and listen. If you hold forth, you’re lecturing and people’s eyes will glaze over. We’ve all been trapped by the single subject bore. Don’t be that person.
7. No open combat
Conversation isn’t about proving a point; true conversation is about going on a journey with the people you are speaking with. Ricky Maye
Conversation is not a full-contact sport. Rein in the need to be right all the time and keep away from arguments. If someone tries to pick a fight with you, decline. Move away, feign ignorance, or change the subject. Social gatherings are rarely a good setting in which to confront people. If you think you’re superior to other people, keep it to yourself and consider you’re probably wrong.
8. Steer away from controversy
The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment. Dorothy Nevill
In a mixed gathering, there will be a range of opinions on any subject. Deeply held convictions are not going to change over the canapes, and that includes yours. One of the great joys of life is discussing deeper issues, but reserve that for the right audience. Avoid politics, religion, and any charged subject from the news.
If you’re faced with someone espousing views you’re absolutely opposed to, you have the right to move on. Don’t put up with unnecessary discomfort. Socialising is hard enough.
9. Practise emotional intelligence
Silence is one of the great arts of conversation. Cicero
Be aware of the person you’re talking with. Do they show signs of interest with open body language? Are they oriented towards you, the exit, or someone else? One of the worst sins is constantly scanning the room for the next mark. This makes the other person feel ignored and insignificant. If you see someone else you want to speak with, finish your conversation and excuse yourself politely.
Know when a conversation has ended and try to move on with grace. Pay attention to cues.
On the other hand, if you do connect with someone, ask open questions and listen. If you want them to say a bit more, try waiting combined with encouraging actions such as smiling or nodding. Often people will respond again to fill the silence. If not, offer something of your own. The best conversations happen when both people are relaxed and willing to reveal something true about themselves.
10. Know your limits
Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas…many have a horror of small talk but enjoy deep discussions. Susan Cain
Extroverts are energised by social contact, whereas introverts are drained by it. Both need other people to varying extents. If you’re introverted, plan accordingly. Watch your energy levels and leave before you’re exhausted. Accept that you’ll need a period of withdrawal to recharge and work it into your schedule as a priority.
Don’t Sweat The Small Talk
Brave the introductions and small talk, and introverts have a chance to find a kindred spirit who’s happy to chat in a quiet corner while the extroverts work the room. If you’re lucky enough to go with a more outgoing partner or friend, that might offer the perfect cover. You’ll still have to drag them away at the end though.
Treat small talk as a starter for ten rather than a trial. Life is all about making connections and that means being comfortable with social situations, whether you prefer talking or listening.
You can’t get to the deep without first going through the shallows.
(first published by Publishous on Medium 8 June 2019)
Have a comment? Drop it below and start a conversation.
It’s like failing to harvest mature wood from an oak sapling, then abandoning it because you think it will never grow big enough to be worthwhile.
Often we start something in a flush of enthusiasm. But when it doesn’t yield significant results immediately, we get discouraged and give up. The gym routine, language class, or novel is dropped because you thought for sure that a month or two of effort would be enough to make progress.
But take a different view. How would future you feel if you persevered with small efforts now? In five years, what can you achieve by daily practice?
Graphic designer Ethan Tennier-Stuart showed stunning improvement over five years. Every skill responds to deliberate practice. Talent has to be matched with effort to achieve its potential.
Small Numbers Still Count
All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small. Lao Tzu
Everything starts off small — a word, a note, a brick — but put enough of them together and you can build something astonishing.
Write two hundred words daily and you’ll have enough material for four novels. Writing over a third of a million words is guaranteed to hone your skills.
Years ago I wanted to write seriously. But I was juggling home and work and exhaustion, and couldn’t see how to find time or energy for it.
So I committed to one hundred and fifty words daily after dinner, whatever happened, even if I just typed I’m so tired over and over. Sometimes it was gibberish but eventually those words turned into short stories, then a novella.
If I’d waited for the ideal conditions I might never have started. My daily goal was tiny, but that’s exactly what made it achievable. Persistence pays off in the end.
When it comes to ageing, we can’t turn the clock back. But we can slow some processes down. Future you will thank present you for wearing sunscreen daily, cutting out that dessert or bread roll, and getting enough sleep.
Walk thirty minutes daily and you’ll see your health improve. Make time to connect with a child daily, and reap the benefits. You’ll build better connection in fifteen intentional minutes daily than in the most amazing annual vacation.
It’s all about building big improvements in small increments.
One step after another in the right direction will take you as far as you need to go. Don’t discount any small amount of progress — success is built of innumerable tiny actions.
The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
Make time work with you, instead of feeling helpless.
Time will pass anyway, so use it to build something you’ll be proud of. Pick up your first pebble right now and start to move your personal mountain.
Dark stories are told, but time passes so fast you’ll find that precautions are not built to last.
Watch out little children, you better take care
when those who know better tell you to beware,
when those with long memories shudder and sigh
be sure something fearsome will come by and by.
You might love your fairy tales, sugar and spice
without realising such tales are made twice.
The first is to make trembling humans afraid
of glowering monsters that creep in the shade.
The second, to gloss over, sweeten and soothe
for those without courage, the unvarnished truth.
Just call me Cassandra, who did try to tell
there are many roads to the portals of hell.
Through study and practice I long ago learned
to master the hunger that endlessly burned
in flesh bone and marrow, secreted within
my heart and my essence, the voice of my kin.
Dark, difficult magic. This had to be done
to shackle the devil. There was only one
small gap in my armour, for try as I might
no lore can delay the day’s turn into night,
or heavenly bodies that spin on their track
and one day align. Then the beast will attack.
I swear that I told them they must stay inside.
I hopelessly begged all the children to hide.
No prayer, incantation or druid’s wise rune
will silence the call of a super blood moon.
My wolf broke its bonds, howling vengeance. And here
came answering cries of my clan far and near,
my brothers and sisters all hungry to feast
on flesh of the great, and the bones of the least.
Unfettered by reason and drunk on our might
the slaughter proceeded beneath the red light.
I woke to regret, utter carnage around.
We cannot leave anything here to be found.
There is no escape, chained to life by this curse.
But I would exchange all the gold in my purse
to be once again a mere mortal — to die
and pay for my sins as blood drips from my eye in sad imitation of genuine tears.
I mourn for my victims across countless years.
We buried the last of the bodies this morning.
The foolish and brave, who did not heed my warning.
Every year it comes again, this subtle sense of loss — a missing piano note. I’ve erased and rewritten our story so many times over that the memory now is ragged and blurred. Too much clings to the fabric. There’s no space to start afresh.
Sharp edged criticism and disappointments have mellowed, tumbled over and over in an ocean of days and tears and never minds. What was once harsh and bitter turns soft and hazy. Perhaps one day even these will disappear, all the corners worn away until nothing remains.
I wonder if she ever heard me cry, holding jagged shards to my heart instead of comfort.
I cannot bear to wait for an echo that remains silent, so I do not sing the missing note. It sits inside my chest, bound and shackled.
Each early summer season it tries to escape. My throat is barricaded and I will not.
The past is veiled for my protection, bubble-wrapped in half-truths and semi-plausible explanations. We do our best and it is not enough. One always wants more than the other can give.
A never ending game played out across generations. Rules are unclear and the dice are loaded.
One day, my daughter too will cast the wishes I unknowingly broke into her private sea, hoping fragments will wash ashore smooth enough to hold.
Filled with too much or too little
(a little too much pain, I thought then.)
I thought I knew how life worked.
You were sunlight, floating carelessly
bright summer without end.
I thought I knew how seasons turned.
A flock of black umbrellas for a good man
steady drizzling grey, a leaden weight
that stops my breath, crushes my throat.
Earth rains from cold fingers
pattering on the lid
a fleeting thought of following it down.
I thought I knew how hearts worked
but there’s no fixing this
(too short, too little)
you couldn’t teach me how to smile today.
So I turn my face heavenward, swallow the sky
let its tears drown my despair.
I thought I knew –