Sunday, 4 January 2015

How Natalie Goldberg saved my Christmas (and possibly my 2015.)

Anyone who's been following my blog in a way that isn't accidental (and I'm saying that to qualify the statement that follows this one, not because I'm deluding myself I actually have hordes of followers) may have noticed a slight downturn in mood over the last couple of months or so. I even addressed it head-on in this previous post, although at that time I didn't offer any theories or suspicions as to why I'd got myself into that particular funk. I did say I'd think on it though, in order to Get It Sorted.

And Christmas, as it turned out, was a good time to do that. Mostly because I got so caught up in planning, preparing and doing all the crazy stuff required to make Christmas run so smoothly no-one believes any effort goes into the process at all, that the writing schedule I'd been adhering to like a good little girl for the rest of the year went... well, not just out the window, but down the road and probably into the nearest pub to get drunk and have a few fights, for all I know. I actually had one week - admittedly the actual Christmas week - where my tally of hours spent writing was a big fat zero. As in, nothing. Nada. Zilch. For an entire week.

I still can't look at that week in my spreadsheet without getting a lump in my throat and wanting to beat myself about the head with my copy of Stephen King's On Writing. Either that or go back in time and try and do it all differently, but I'm thinking the first option is probably more achievable. And what with the New Year chasing the heels of Christmas like a deranged stalker, the last two weeks of December inevitably became a time to reflect on the year that's just passed and take that wisdom with me into the year about to start.

And bloody hell, what a depressing five-minutes-that-felt-like-a-lifetime that was. In January of last year, I imagined draft two of Redemption being finished and that I'd be deep into the nuts-and-bolts editing stage by now. I imagined succeeding at this would give me such a boost my productivity would double and I'd be positively champing at the bit to get it beta-read. Most of all, I imagined saying I was a writer would be something I could do with pride, rather than with the vague suspicion that people were either rolling their eyes or laughing at me behind my back.

As of this moment, I have achieved precisely none of these things. And that, I have realised, is the skeleton of my current depressive slump. The meat on those misery-bones? Writing advice. Tons and tons and tons of writing advice. As I've also mentioned before, I've read a lot of writing how-to books this year. One big reason for this is that there are several gazillion such books to be found in Kindle form via Amazon, and the majority of them at ridiculously low prices. While the possibility of spending frivolously on ebooks is easily tempered when you're paying £7-£10 a pop for them (because you're able to make a more rational decision about whether you really want that book that much) when they're only 77p you'll happily trade that rationality for "Hey - it's only 77p! That's, like, a bar of chocolate!" And, to be fair, some of them were very good...

Trouble is, a book-diet that's low in story and fun but high in writing advice can eventually start to feel like a food diet that's low in fat and sugar but high in fibre. As in, you keep telling yourself it's doing you good and you'll see the benefits in the long-term so WHY THE EFF DO YOU FEEL SO EFFIN' MISERABLE ALL THE EFFIN' TIME THESE DAYS?

All those books, filled with all those rules, that's why. The 'should's, the 'must,'s the 'you'd be advised to's and the 'don't ever..'s. An endless list of all the ways you can fail as a writer - wait, no, not just as a writer, but as a person too, because if you can't even see that's how you're failing you must be an egotistical asshole as well! And after a long period on a low-story, high-advice book diet, you start to feel like you're being followed around by a drill sergeant who's constantly looking over your shoulder at your work and going "Not good enough, slacker! Try harder! Work faster! Move your ass, you worthless piece of shit!"

That's how I was starting to feel. About Redemption, about writing a novel - heck, about whether I had the right to think I was even capable of ever being a published novelist. All those endless voices, yelling in my brain about what not to do, how not to write... check yourself before you wreck yourself, Mrs Wannabe-Author... 

But then I got lucky. I got a Kindle book voucher for Christmas, which meant I could use it to buy two or three quality £7-£10 books without feeling like Selfish Mum. (Much.) And, right within that price bracket, were two new books by Natalie Goldberg: The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life With Language and Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open The Writer's Craft.

I first encountered Natalie Goldberg's writing some ten years ago, when I enrolled on an online writing course for which two of her books - Writing Down The Bones and Wild Mind - were required reading. This was in the days before e-books (that's right kids, but don't worry - we had moved on from gramophones by then) so my copies were made of dead trees rather than megabytes - but they were two of the most important books I've ever read. I know it sounds clich├ęd when people say a book 'changed their life,' but these two books truly did change mine. They were the first books I ever read that made writing and being a writer feel like an okay thing to want to to do and be - it didn't mean you were a nutcase, a feckless dreamer who failed at everything or a pretentious narcissist overestimating her cleverness. If I'd never read Natalie's books, I would never have gone on to read Julia Cameron's The Artists' Way, or Stephen King's On Writing... I wouldn't have gone on to write 100+ parody song lyrics and then progressed to getting a couple of short stories published, and I certainly wouldn't have even attempted to write Redemption. My writing life before I read her books had consisted of me standing in front of the Big Door To being A Writer, hoping that someday I'd be considered good enough to have the key that got you inside. Natalie was the person who said "Y'know, that door isn't locked. It's open to anyone and everyone - all you have to do is want to step inside." It sounds so simple, but sometimes the simple messages get drowned out by the everyday racket of dissenting voices all around you.

Natalie and her books are a lot like Marmite. Many people - myself included - love her enthusiastic zen approach to writing and life, while others dismiss her as little more than a navel-gazing hippie who peddles false notions that everyone has creative potential. For me, Writing Down The Bones and Wild Mind were like the secret letters from a best friend, passed under the desk when the teacher's not looking. They set me free, encouraging me to see my need to write as a positive thing rather than the delusions of an airhead who was too lazy to aspire to a 'useful' ambition.

If anyone could show me the way out of my current self-dug pit of crumpled confidence it was her. I started reading Thunder and Lightning on New Years Day, and, ten years after reading her previous books, I can feel her magic starting to work all over again. I'm only a third of the way through, and already I'm starting to recover; I've (re)-realised that:

- Writing Redemption until I'm happy with it will take... as long as it takes. And however long that takes... is perfectly okay.
- Not driving towards a goal of 'being able to fully support myself financially as a full-time writer'... is also perfectly okay. And not wanting to do so... does not mean I'll 'never make it as a writer at all...'
- When other authors say what writers 'should' be doing... they are offering advice, not laws. Their way is not mandatory, and not following it to the letter does not necessarily mean you 'can't be a writer in the proper sense of the word.'
Writing from the heart requires courage - but it's the courage of a lamb, not the courage of a lion. It's not about 'kicking ass' and 'taking no prisoners,' it's about going into the dark and neglected corners of your mind and facing your innermost fears.
- You write what you write because it's what you need to write - it's your heart and your mind on the page. Listen to advice from others about how to make it better, but don't let them try to grab your lump of clay and mould it into something else - something you never intended it to be.

 From a writing point of view, 2015 might not be any faster or more productive for me than 2014 was, but it's starting to feel like it'll be better. So thanks Natalie. You saved writer-me ten years ago and now you're saving me again. We've never met, so I can't really call you my best writer-friend, but that's how I've come to regard you through your books - you're the best writer-friend I'd choose if I was free to choose anyone in the world.

I can only hope that I might one day be as good a writer-friend for others. I'd take that over some stellar career as a high-flying author any day.

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