Writing on Writing? Somewhere in Perth, Part 3

In response to last week’s post, a friend made the very reasonable suggestion that readers may be more interested in my retreat than my reaction to Miranda Seymour’s biography of Mary Shelley.

While I agree,  work on my novel has stalled due to recurring anxiety and another problem I’d rather not have to deal with. While I can handle both, they have interrupted my work. In the meantime I’ve diligently maintained my version of a writer’s most important tool: the ‘Daily Pages’, or my version of it.

person holding blue ballpoint pen writing in notebook
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In 1992, Julia Cameron published a book recommending artists practice various techniques and exercises to help them become more self-confident and access their creativity. Cameron’s ‘Morning Pages’ are ‘stream of consciousness’  reflections written in longhand, on any topic that may help an artist

 

 clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the [working] day at hand.

Cameron was not the first to recommend this practice (nor did she claim to be). Writers in particular use various methods to ‘kick start’ their writing sessions; open any book on writing and you will invariably find a section on keeping a ‘writer’s notebook’, ‘writer’s journal,’ or similar. My own journey as a writer was encouraged when reading Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters when I was still a teenager. Maybe that’s why I find writing about writing easier than writing a novel?

There is no one way to keep a writing diary, morning pages or daily pages; my problem, born of writing a personal journal for over thirty years, is my daily pages often lack any reference to my novel, how I structure it, develop my characters or explore my themes. I tend to focus on my private life when I’d be better served planning and shaping my work, and thinking about what I am doing and why. This is important during the writing process, and more so at the editing stage.

What I needed was ‘technical’ prompts to help me think about my novel and how it might develop. Earlier this week, while struggling to work on my novel, I created the following list of prompts to help stimulate my process:

Record of Current Writing Project: ideas, influences, inspirations, mythological themes or structures to explore; prompts used; proposed and modified schedule; which stage I’m in (in terms of pre-writing, planning, drafting, crafting, structural and micro editing); work to do on genre, plot, conflict, character, setting, theme, dialogue, symbols, sharing/seeking feedback; time frame (drafting, editing, ready to read, ready to go); feedback from readers…

I now have a focus for writing about my writing. For example, the theme I want to explore is that of the lost or wandering child: what or who does she encounter that helps or hinders her journey and how am I expressing that? Where am I in terms of my time frame and do I need to return to the planning stage before I can continue?

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I hope these prompts will ensure my daily pages won’t just be a rant about my current problems but a way to think about and re-engage with the work I’m here to do.

 

Your comments: I’d love to hear from other writers on how you reflect on your work in progress. Do you keep a writer’s journal? If so, why? If not, why not?

The Rights of Women: Somewhere in Perth Part 2

The first week of my retreat did not go as well as I planned or imagined. This is understandable. Very little in life meets our expectations; one of life’s crucial skills is learning to adapt and be content with what we can achieve. In my case I managed over 4,000 words, not bad considering I failed to stick to a writing routine. Perhaps I am not a writer who can follow a routine? Then again, if I stick to my routine in the coming week I may achieve more in terms of word count. The point is, I have been writing. My novel boasts more words today than this time last week, though their quality will be tested during the first edit.

I have also been surprised to learn that my imposed solitude has not been as pleasant as I hoped. My accommodation is excellent, I am eating well, I have access to the internet and a mobile phone but I never sleep well when alone and this week has been a challenge for me. I am positive this will settle down, but in the short term those 4,000 plus words might be the result of a tired and occasionally overwrought mind. I’ll let you know how I have coped with this challenge next week.

The real pleasure of this first week comes from reading Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley. It’s been on my shelf for years and I am glad I had the sense to bring it with me.

Mary Shelley, nee Godwin, was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and William Godwin, a political philosopher. Godwin_Wolstonecraft

Best known as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley started writing the book when she was only eighteen, barely two years after she ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in July 1814. Percy Shelley, mercurial and impulsive, declared his love to the sixteen year old Mary, a love she ardently requited, despite his marriage at nineteen to the then sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook. Harriet had one child, a daughter, and was pregnant with her second child when Percy ran off to France with Mary and her sister Jane (also known as Claire Clairmont).

When Harriet committed suicide in 1816, Mary and Percy were free to marry, albeit reluctantly. Early in their relationship Percy Shelley hoped to create a commune ‘in which sexual freedom could be practiced,’ and, like Mary’s parents, they were both religious skeptics.

Mary and Percy were together for only eight years. From the begining the relationship was severely tested, particularly prior to Percy’s death in Italy in July 1822. The couple were always short of money. Percy Shelley’s aristocratic father refused to support him and they had to move constantly to avoid their debtors. Mary gave birth to four children, three of them lost in early infancy, but despite this Mary wrote and published one novel, started another, made ‘fair copies’ of Percy’s poems, taught herself Italian and Greek, entertained her husband’s many literary friends and endured the tantrums of her intemperate sister Claire.

A well-educated, erudite woman, Mary was stoic despite, like her mother, suffering from periods of depression. It was not being Mrs Shelley, however, that gave Mary cause for grief, it was her husband’s continual philandering. It is almost certain Percy and his sister-in-law Claire had a passionate love affair, which possibly produced a child. There were several other ill-conceived passions on the part of the poet, mostly with younger women, women he expected Mary to welcome into her house as friends.

Seymour’s detailed biography is scrupulously even-handed. Where facts about, for example, Percy’s love affairs or Claire’s antics (incuding a brief affair with Lord Byron, another famous poet and pursuer of women) are not known or lost, Seymour suggests plausible scenarios. This allows the reader to draw reasoned conclusions about events and Mary’s attitude towards them. Seymour is also searingly honest about Mary’s depression and occassional bad temper while at pains to demonstrate Mary’s extraordinary intelligence, warm humour and her love of learning and the theatre.

As a result of reading Seymour’s biography I decided to adopt Mary Shelley as the patron of my small retreat. Her resilience, love of literature and witty, intelligent conversation, plus her moments of dissatisfaction and despair at the thoughtless, lascivious behavior of her husband, are admirable. I do not see her as a victim, despite the fact that well after his death she championed a man who did not deserve her. Mary Shelley raised her son alone and supported her aging father with her writing. While in later life she may not have been accorded the respect she earned with Frankenstein, she never gave up doing what she loved.Mary_Sh

And neither will I

Retreat to Advance: Somewhere in Perth Part 1

I flew to Perth, Western Australia, late last week for a writing retreat and to house sit for one of my sons and his wife while they are overseas.

It’s an interesting combination. To retreat is to pull back or move away for privacy, as well as to withdraw after a defeat. House sitting involves accommodating oneself to different household appliances, neighbourhoods, shopping centres and traffic conditions. Together they imply  domestic, personal and social restructuring, albeit temporary.

I chose to combine the two because a novel I’m working on has stalled. I also need to step away from my ‘normal’ life, to reflect on my feelings and thoughts about many complicated but essential aspects of my world.

On arrival in Perth I immersed myself in the pleasure of catching up with my loved ones and helping them with preparations for their trip. Then came the reality of an unfamiliar, suddenly quiet and seemingly empty space.White_room

Except it’s not empty. I’m here, and although I’ve not started writing I have planned my ‘program’, organised a writing space and learned to understand the suspirations and limina unique to this house.

Part of my plan is to ‘report’, via Elixir, my progress. Every Sunday I will share what challenged me; what I achieved; how I achieved it; how I stayed, or failed to stay, on track and what I did when I took time off.

person woman desk laptop
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Writing is a solitary activity; retreating from the demoralising interruptions of daily life, combined with facing down the inner (and outer) demons that sabotage a writing practice, needs time and a comfortable living space. Thankfully I have both, and find the prospect and challenge of the coming weeks daunting and beguiling.

Footnote: I contacted my Facebook Writing Group for tips, hints and ideas for getting through a solitary writing retreat and received some amazing support. If you have any tips about writing while in retreat, I’d be delighted and grateful if you could share them with me and my readers. Thank you.