Identity Crisis

22529144Last night I attended an event where Alexandra Fuller discussed her new memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come.

Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, her earlier memoir of growing-up in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia in the 1970s and 1980s, left a deep impression on me. It’s a powerful and powerfully written story, and my own life shares some similarities, so I was delighted to meet her in person. It was a wonderful, inspiring evening.

Alexandra talked about a lot of things. What particularly strikes me now is what she said about identity. She has in the past been criticised for subtitling Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight “An African Childhood” – and for stating that she is an African, “first and foremost.” (I presume the criticisms were mostly because Africa is not a single country.) I wanted to ask her more about what she means by saying she has an African mind and soul, something I’d read in an interview in preparation for the event, but time was short and so I asked another question, one about the long-term consequences of trauma. Nevertheless, this issue about identity is an important one for me.

I was born in South Africa, but left when I was seven, so my time in Southern Africa was much shorter than Alexandra’s, and when I do visit, I don’t have a feeling of coming home, unlike Alexandra. I have three passports, South African, Canadian and British. I was educated mostly in England, but have lived many years in Canada and Ireland, and have lived for extensive periods in other countries: Greece, Germany, France, Australia. On ‘the road’ throughout Asia.

I have struggled to find ‘home’. I am not even sure what it means to feel ‘at home’ in a place – a town, a country, a house or apartment. In my body, even. I know they (who are ‘they’?) say “Home is where the heart is, but this has never been much solace or use.

As I grew up, I began to identify myself as European. I felt at ease in Paris, London. In Berlin and Athens. I loved sitting in cafés, people-watching. I loved to discuss art, philosophy and Life in General. The authors I read were predominantly English, French, German (in translation) and, of course, the Greek classics (my degree is in Ancient Greek). I thought I felt European. It’s what I told people when they asked. It was better than saying ‘English’ because I certainly didn’t feel English, and the English certainly seemed to think I wasn’t one of them. I could hardly call myself French, or German or Greek.

So European it was, until someone I respected laughed out loud when I told them.

You’re not European,” she said. “You’re North American.”

I instantly rejected this assessment. I’d been living in Canada for many years, and had a Canadian passport, and even a Canadian husband for a while (but he had Japanese heritage and was born in Buffalo, New York…), but me, North American? No, never. And definitely not Canadian (I had absorbed the usual (boring) judgements about Canadians: “boring”).

But as the years went on, and my little struggle for identity put on the back burner as there were so many other things to worry about, I realised that I felt more at ease amongst Canadians and Americans. I loved them for their (generalisation alert) friendliness. When meeting someone new, if they were North American, I felt as if was actually worth meeting. But when presented to a new person who happened to be English, the experience was vastly different. The unspoken phrase was the same: “Hello, and who are you?” but the Americans said it with bright, open friendliness and the English with a guarded suspicion.

So I re-aligned my compass: perhaps I had a North American soul, even though I was not born there and nor were any of my ancestors, as far as I knew.  If I include my reading habits, and indeed where I’m mostly published, my preferences in literature have become quite ‘North American.’

But still I wondered.

When I read about how Alexandra Fuller felt about Africa, I began to think perhaps I too had an African ‘soul’, that in spite of my few years in Southern Africa, and not feeling ‘at home’ there, I had been indelibly imprinted in some way.

umbrellapineI have a very strong (positive) emotional response to certain landscapes, climates, trees and sounds.  I love the hot, the dry, the subtropical, I love the umbrella pines of the Mediterranean. The sound of crickets has an instant calming effect on my body. I crave the gold and sand colours of the desert; I crave huge vistas and vast night skies. (I fell in love with Australia for all those things.)

My idea of heaven is a languid late afternoon sitting on a verandah watching the sun go down.

africantreeThe iconic tree of Africa is the umbrella thorn acacia, very similar to the umbrella pine. I was born in Johannesburg, which has a subtropical climate, but I remember it for its hot days and cool, ‘desert’ nights, night so pitch you can barely see your hand in front of your face, stars bright enough to hurt. My few trips back to South Africa have included many long evenings watching stars, listening to the night sounds (sipping something cold and alcoholic).

And then yesterday, I heard Alexandra Fuller say (I’m paraphrasing) “The trouble with having a national identity, is that you end up having to fight for it.”

A penny finally dropped. Yes, of course there are so many aspects of Africa, of Europe, of America, of the people who live there, that I love, that I identify with, that I yearn for when I’m not there.  But perhaps I don’t need to keep searching for one particular national identification.

In the past I have sat in meditation for hours, for days, in fact, asking the question: “Who am I?”

The answer to this question is unsayable. Not because I don’t want to say it, but simply because the answer is ineffable.*

Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly awry, wherever I am, I whisper to myself “I am here.”

*Think Walt Whitman: Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

After The End

I was going to title this blog ‘When you finish your novel, what then?’ Not that I have any tips, but simply because I’m in this awkward no-man’s land of having finished one long work, and I haven’t quite started writing a new project. I don’t like this place at all. I then Googled (of course) ‘When you finish your novel, what then?’ and found (of course) a plethora of blogs on the subject, in fact one titled with this very question.  Holly Robinson writes:

Unfortunately, what follows isn’t always instant acceptance by an agent, an editor, or even your beta readers and friends. Usually what happens is the calm before the calm, a big yawning hole of deafening silence as you wait for somebody, anybody, even your mom, to please please please read the book and tell you what they think.

Meanwhile, you experience doom-and-gloom sentiments: “What good am I? I can’t even pick up the living room!” Maybe you think, “The novel is dead. Why do I bother? Nobody reads anymore.” Or, “I’m not earning money doing this. In fact, I’m costing myself money! I should quit before my family has to live out of the car!”

Most of all, you feel bereft, because the characters you’ve been living with for the past nine months or nine years have stopped living in your head. The voices are quiet. Gardening and housework can help ease the pain of saying goodbye to those people you came to know better than your own friends. So can reading — because it brings you back to that place where you can marvel at other people’s sentences instead of gnawing over your own…

I hear the “big yawning hole of deafening silence.” Not from my mother, God forbid. I have no plans on showing her the manuscript. It’s too violent. Besides which, she’s not doing so well and isn’t reading lately. And, it’s not that I’m wanting feedback, I’ve had plenty of feedback and a lot of support along the way from some very fine writers and teachers of writing. The silence is from agents. In November I submitted a query letter to a select handful of literary agents. I received one quick and outright no to the letter, one very appreciative no to the letter and first 40 pages, and one who started reading the manuscript, told a mutual friend she was enjoying it (at about 30 pages) and since then, I haven’t heard back. And the others, they haven’t replied to the query letter. It was an email, actually. Now I’m worrying I should have sent a letter by post.

What is the etiquette here? Can I, after 8 weeks, send a little note asking if they have actually received my email? I’m sure if I do another Google I’ll find out.

As for quitting before my family has to live out of the car, well, my little family almost lives out of a car already. I’m not too bothered not to be hanging out with my characters anymore. I’ve been with them for five years, through countless drafts. I’m fully aware that once an agent falls in love with the work (yes please), I’ll be asked to do more edits, and there will be more when it’s picked up by a publisher. I’m ready and waiting. It’s the waiting I don’t like.

I know most people say start something new, and I do have two projects planned. A short story and a longer work that will be closer to memoir than fiction, based on a series of crazy events that happened when I lived in Donegal, aged fourteen. I have thought about this work for years, and will title it either Seagull Pie or Anywhere But Here.  I’m attending Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s Freefall Writing retreat in Portugal at the Monte Rosa Retreat Centre in April (join me, I think there are still spaces!) and this is when I plan to dive in to this longer work. I hope it will simply write itself. If anything I have too much material to work with. I just have to get it all down (famous last words).

sputnik2[]The short story feels more difficult, an idea I have that will be set in the early years of the space race. I have a big book from the library filled with pictures: Spaceflight : the complete story from Sputnik to shuttle and beyond. It’s a bit weird, to be reading this book. It’s the kind of thing my brother would have devoured while I played with my Barbie dolls. Am I actually interested? All I can say for now is that I feel interesting with this tome in my hands, one that I can barely hold up. I’m taking notes. I am, I promise.

I have also applied to the Artists’ International Development Fund to do a Live Literature road-trip along the east coast of the USA with the fantastic Robin McLean later this year. So I’m not entirely hanging about doing nothing. The UK Arts Council grant writing process is at least a two week full time job, exhausting and challenging and just a little terrifying.

And, this morning, I started, once again, the “page-a-day” writing practise I once set for my Diving Deeper writers’ group. Some years ago doing this practise produced a number of pieces I was able to easily re-work into flash fiction – most of which are published. And, it always made me feel I had achieved something, even if I knew what I’d written would never be read by another person, ever.

I know it’s what I ‘should’ do. I keep starting, and then giving up. Let’s see how long I can keep it up this time.

If you want to try it, here’s the deal: One page. Just one page. Of writing. There are no other rules. You can handwrite or type. You can type the same word over and over until your page is done. You can double space or single space. You can use a huge font but that is cheating. You can write separate pieces, or connected ones. It doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s a good idea to write as badly as you can. Just do it.

And…if ‘I should do this’ is one of those awful cacophonies in your head that make you feel bad about yourself (it is in mine), read the ever inspiring Dani Shapiro’s blog, On Art and Life. As she says…

…it helps to remember that every single moment you wholeheartedly experience becomes part of your instrument, part of what you know.

Photo on 27-11-2014 at 15.56 #3

Dani Shapiro on Oprah

Dani Shapiro, a remarkable writer and mentor of writers will be featured this fall in conversation with Oprah. Dani’s memoir, “Devotion” was one of “O” The Oprah Magazine’s must-read picks for February.

I have been blessed to be in two of Dani’s workshop’s at Sirenland (see my blogs on this). She’s an extraordinary woman and I’m very much looking forward to seeing her in discussion with another extraordinary woman, Oprah Winfrey.

Resolutions or Resetting Priorities

The beginning of a new year always seems to inspire resolutions. I don’t really like resolutions, I prefer goals. Taking a look at what has been working, what hasn’t. Where I’d like to be in a year’s time. What I need to take care of, what bad habits I’ve fallen into. So for me it’s much more about resetting priorities. I like to read the monthly shamanic forecast from Power Path, it’s quite inspiring and usually spot on with what is happening in my life. January’s theme is indeed “Resetting Priorities“. Inspired by this I set a new assignment on Diving Deeper which focuses on priorities regarding our writing, our creativity. In the assignment I ask questions like: What are the ways I avoid creative writing? What are the ways I avoid going deeper with my writing/creativity? What is the ‘next step’ for me and my writing?

I feel fairly on track with my writing, apart from the fact I haven’t been working on my novel since September. I put the first draft to bed, to rest awhile, to give me some separation from it so when I start editing, it will be easier. Well, that’s the hope. And the year is starting off fairly intensely with my trip to Sri Lanka to give a talk at the Galle Literary Festival (January 26 – 30), and also for the British Council in Colombo on the 2nd of February.

I am actually being ‘forced’ to read what I’ve written before I leave for Sri Lanka as I have to choose 25 pages to workshop for Sirenland in March.

If I have a particular priority to reset, I would say it is to do some daily writing, even if it’s not on the novel, and to do this before I do anything else… in particular before I communicate and connect with others via my computer. I very much enjoy my social life via Diving Deeper, Facebook and Twitter, but if I’m not careful most of my workable day can whizz past on these and other sites, and by the time I get to doing some writing, I have no energy.

Reasons to do National Novel Writing Month…

This is an edited version of what I recently posted to my Diving Deeper Writing group:

200px-NaNo_logoAs some of you know it is less than two weeks until National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it is commonly called. The object being to write 50,000 words in one month.  It is an annual creative writing project coordinated by the non-profit organization ‘The Office of Letters and Light’, first started in 1999.

Last year just under 170,000 people from all over the world took part in the event, writing a total of over 2.4 billion words. It means writing just under 2000 words a day, or if you want accuracy: 1666.6667 words a day for 30 days. Of course you can write 5,000 words a day and hit the goal in 10 days, as our own Leigh-Anne did in 2008… (Here is a little interview they did with me in 2008 when Diving Deeper was part of

Now if you’re thinking “I’d rather clean my entire house with a worn away toothbrush than do THAT”, let me tell you why this is an incredible event and why you should join those of us who have already committed.

It has been said that to truly be a writer you need to write a million words. There was a time when I rebelled against this and thought it was rubbish, but as time went on and I saw how my writing was in fact improving the more I wrote, I see the truth in it. NaNoWriMo is an excellent way to get some of those million words down, and in particular because NaNoWriMo is not about quality. It’s about quantity. It is the ultimate in our Truly Bad Writing assignment. For some reason, a million quality words isn’t what makes you a writer, it’s simply about getting those words down, about knowing you can do it, that you will do it, regardless of how shitty you feel or how important it is to write those 10 emails you haven’t got round to for months or how you absolutely must redecorate the living room.

Writing is about practise. As in learning by repetition, AND as in ‘practise’ as in a spiritual practise. To write daily, or at least as often as you can, as a way of life. As something that feeds your soul, even when it feels like it isn’t. I believe NaNoWriMo is one of the best ways to truly experience what it means to be a writer, and to put to rest all the fears that you can’t write, that you could ‘never write a novel’, that it’s too hard.

The other wonderful aspect of doing NaNoWriMo is community and friendship. During the month we gather on Diving Deeper, in the NaNoWriMo group, and share our daily experiences, with the writing and with ourselves.

Now there are NaNoWriMo communities and boards on the NaNoWriMo website with all sorts of tips and encouragment, and you can just gather there and not on Diving Deeper. If you prefer to join one of those by all means do, but we have found that a small group who know the Diving Deeper principles is very supportive. We can share anything at all, we can moan and groan and weep or celebrate, and there will always be someone willing to listen and commiserate.

In terms of actually achieving the goal of 50,000 words, it is quite possible to write your daily quota in an hour (or less if you are a fast typist), but if you can I’d say you need 2-3 hours for mulling and creative space. But, if all you have is an hour a day, that’s enough. As I said, it’s not about quality. Just get those words down! Anything at all. Short stories, memoir, novel, total blather, the longest, worst poem in the world, whatever…

One word at a time…

Being willing to be wrong: On Research

Staying with the research theme, one of the main lessons I’ve learned recently about research is to be willing to be wrong. To be willing to have my preconceptions shattered, to be open for information and experiences that do not fit into what I had planned. The other realisation I have had is that the more in-depth research I do, the more I become aware that I do not know ‘the truth’. That perhaps the message or messages I had hoped my novel might explore, no matter how subtle, are perhaps quite limited, that in fact there are many sides to a story. So, is it possible for me to step back, to see with clearer eyes, to not take ’sides’ but to lay out for my readers a series of events and characters in such a way that they can also see the larger picture rather than look for the heroes or the villains?

How does a writer do research?

Well, I can only tell you how I’m doing it.

For first drafts, I try to tie my hands away from anything but the keyboard, and do my best (and fail bitterly) NOT to look things up on the ‘net. However, once the raw material is down, then I can insert things like specific bird and tree names, or expand on a situation or scene. I did very little research for most of the stories in my short story collection A Sort Of Walking Miracle. I did very little research for first draft of my novella, Serendip (draft title). Now, as I’m developing it to novel length, I’m finding I am doing some research as I go along. I’m reading about the period the work is set in, both in fiction and non fiction. Doing this has actually inspired further scenes in the book and because of this I have had to alter the original time frame.

I will be going to Sri Lanka for a two week trip at the end of August for hands on research. I hope to interview people who experienced some of the events that occur in my novel, and I’ll be taking in the surroundings and environment as much as I can. The last time I was in Sri Lanka was in the early 80s, and there is much I have forgotten. I thought I hated research, but now I’m actually enjoying it.

I have read of writers who do a lot of research before they sit down and write. Perhaps this will be an approach for my next novel, right now I feel I’m very much learning the ropes as I go along. Perhaps it depends on the story. I do know that I once destroyed a good story idea by getting lost in Google–I wrote 40,000 words and had to throw the towel in because I had written far too many ‘interesting’ words and had zero plot or character development.

Page A Day

The Page A Day assignment has been so successful on my online group Diving Deeper, I would recommend it to anyone who is struggling with their writing, or simply trying to find a back way ‘in’, or just wanting to start a writing practice.

Basically you write about a page a day, on anything. Whatever comes up. Not trying to write a story or an article: let yourself run wild. Write what comes up, even if what comes up is “I can’t write I can’t write I can’t write”. Amazingly, something always will come up. Another tack is to write what you don’t want to write about… write what makes you sweat.

Out of my May month of page a days (some examples are in the blogs for May) I have one piece accepted for publication as flash fiction, and other one I’m sending out, and several that could end up being a longer story, woven together. I did not plan any of this, most certainly did not plan to write publishable material. What I was doing was following a suggestion of another writer, to write a page a day to just keep one’s hand in , so that when the bigger work, the novel, the short story, perhaps the piece that we are ‘blocked on’ or simply don’t have time to write at the moment, is not so difficult to dive into.

At the moment I am using the practice to help me write my novel, Serendip (draft title). It has been a difficult work to get into for a number of reasons, but the short, finite shape of one page feels a much more manageable goal than ‘finish the novel’.

Page A Day – Eighth Day

My writing from the eighth day from the ‘write a page a day’ assignment on Diving Deeper:

You might wonder where the silver lining is in all this. It comes in moments, in small waves, in streaks of pink across the sky, in the stationary elegance of a heron waiting by the river’s edge. In the flapflap of duck wings, the tiny yellow faces of buttercups. I too, wait, at the river’s edge, looking for darting, sliver fish. A list of pleasures: eating doughnuts in Syntagma square in Athens when I was eight years old. A dream of my brother, last night. I half-woke, returned to the dream where simple things happened, nothing to speak of, enough to make me happy.  My list seems to be short today. There are many years between those two events. I could draw them on the wall in pencil, a series of interlinking circles. I close my eyes and stick a pin in the wall. The wall is solid stone. The tip of the pin bends as it breaks the surface. A spray of plaster dust lands on my foot. I dig into the gouge, trying to make the pin stick. The hole just gets bigger, uglier. I’ll have to cover it up somehow. There was a time I sellotaped my poems to the wall, not this wall, another one, in another country. Australia, Melbourne. Tin walls, a sloping floor, an old off-cut of carpet curling up. I had a bed, a mirror, my poems. A listing metal staircase linked room to ground, a walled backyard, no grass, pure concrete. I passed through this yard to get to the toilet, to the shoehorned-in kitchen. I hardly needed the kitchen, I lived on almonds and fresh apples, on yoghourt and beepollen. I hung my handwashed laundry across the sky. A neighbour once stole my knickers. I worried about him, but my landlord told me he was just a sad man, alone, I should not grudge him my underwear. I wondered how the man got in, did he walk across rooftops? Did he use my washing line – strung so loosely from window to wall – as a tightrope? Did he spy on me as I slept? Did he read my poetry? I was not what the landlord expected, and he was not what I expected. I had missed the bit in the ad about the house being gay-friendly. But he had a room (that tin hut in the sky) and I had the money. We inspected each other up and down. I was a slip of a girl on a year’s working holiday visa. He had seen better days. He lived in boxer shorts and a knotted vest, his curling chest hair poking through the holes like tufts of yellow grass. I sometimes wondered if he wished it were his underwear the neighbour coveted. Perhaps he was the culprit all along. I would not dare to stick my poems up on the wall these days, not those poems. Instead I have a Dali print, one of his many melting clocks. It’s a real print, not my own, my brothers, but I have secretly adopted it. I like the colours: the palest blue sky and swirling delicate clouds, an endless horizon, three pencil figures in the foreground, gesturing towards that clock, floating so vigorously downwards. Perhaps I should poke my pin into that clock, perhaps I should swivel it around, fling it skywards so it falls far far away from me. I cannot stand the ticking of clocks.