Last weekend Ian and I visited the nearby city of Rotterdam for a 24-hour break. The weather was glorious and so we decided to take advantage of our host nation’s efficiency and hire bicycles direct from the train station. It was cheaper than taking our own bikes on the train – our usual train cards could simply be swiped and we’d be on our way.
Only, it was not that simple.
The Dutch are tall and can cycle straight from the womb. They pootle around the country’s cycle lanes with their arms folded. Their bikes don’t mess about with handlebar brakes. Oh no, they just back pedal a bit while keeping those long old arms folded.
No one would describe me as a robust driver. I find it very hard to look over my shoulder and not turn the bike (or steering wheel) in the same direction as my eyes. Even when I do manage it, my varifocals present me with a useless blur.
I am short. Even with the saddle set to child height my feet could not touch the floor. Stopping the darn thing meant I had to back pedal and then jump. I soon realised that I was used to slowing down (using handbrakes) before looking over my shoulder to check for overtakers before coming to a total halt. How on earth was I supposed to brake before I needed to brake, then? So, I didn’t, I fell off.
This is just the start of a gorgeous weekend somewhat blighted by bruised elbows and egos. It was a shame because I love cycling so much I quote it as the best thing about this country.
Could you spot ten ideas in two days?
The day before our trip I had set some of my students the task of noticing things that happened to them in the context of living abroad and making a note. It is these seemingly mundane experiences that can be the catalyst to an insight or a parallel that could become a blog post or article. I had asked my students to spot 10 things over the course of two days and so in good humour I decided that it was only fair that I did the exercise too. Indeed, I gleaned at least 10 ideas from the bicycle fiasco alone.
Let me give you three examples of how the writer’s mind should work, taking a fragment of what happened that weekend and using it to create a larger piece:
On a Writing Me-Treat I encourage students to pay attention and notice where ideas are lurking. If you want to be a real writer and want to get published and paid for it then you need to be able to come up with ideas all the time.
I ran my first online writers’ circle last week and was discussing the writing of articles with my students.
“I think I am more of a gardener,” said Nikki.
“Eh?” I think I responded. I had never heard this phrase before, well, certainly not in the context of writing.
“I am more of a gardener than an architect,” she continued.
I was none the wiser so asked for more explanation. And after she had explained I asked her to repeat it so I could take notes.
You see, some writers like to plan it all out first – to create a structure and then start writing. Others are more of the ‘put the pen on the paper and just go’ type of writer, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her book Writing Down the Bones, like me.
Nikki told me that the original concept is attributed to George RR Martin, the guy behind the Game of Thrones novel, who wrote:
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be.
George RR Martin
The gardening bit
In the online writers’ circle, in my workshops and on Me-Treats I always include plenty of spontaneous exercises where I present an idea and immediately give students five, 10 or 15 minutes in which to write something. I give them with a seed of an idea, let them start gardening and just see where it takes them; how it grows.
For me, I start with the germ of an idea, one that is not yet fully formed, put fingers to keyboard and go with the flow, writing from my gut until my ideas run out. I work out what I am going to say while I am writing it.
The architect bit
After a break (a few hours or more) I return to the piece to put some structure onto it, adding subheadings if I feel I need them, maybe moving the text around a bit and cutting unnecessary words. I always ensure I include some kind of insight or takeaway because I like my readers to feel that my words are worth reading enough to come back again.
It makes no difference whether you are a gardener or an architect, or, better still a bit of both. It is okay to start off with a detailed plan or with just a seed. What matters is that you accept who you are and learn to craft your natural style into a coherent piece worth reading.
I’ve just finished preparing the notes for my next Writing Me-Treat. This one will take place in Charente-Maritime, about an hour inland from Bordeaux. We are going to take advantage of the incomparable hospitality and setting of a 19th Century distillery called Chez Vallée that is now home to Amanda and Fraser Graham and Praana Wellness.
As usual on a Me-Treat we are going to take our cues from the place in which we find ourselves. We will take mindful walks and remind ourselves how to pay attention and really take in our surroundings, not just so that we enter a peaceful state of mind but in order to allow the inspiration to flood in. And it is while we are away from our normal routines that we will notice things that are ‘out there’ and find resonance with our own stories. Which is just the beginning.
I’m currently reading and loving The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr and taking tons of notes. Boy, that woman is wise. Mind you, she is the English Literature Professor at Syraceuse University and her memoir classes are woefully over-subscribed.
So, there I am, writing notes from almost every page it seems when one of them leaps out at me:
“Truth is not the enemy – it’s the bannister you grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs.”
Wow! Many budding, talented writers struggle with their truth, with finding it in the first place and then with teasing it out into a piece of writing that has some meaning.
“You get a fragment of a ‘something’ and hang on for dear life until the ‘end’ appears and you can pull and untangle into something that just might be useful,” writes Karr.
It’s a big ask and it’s ambitious but this is my hope for all the students who attend one of my Writing Me-Treats, that somehow, through being in a safe, gentle and inspiring place, a fragment of a something will emerge, and then, thanks to a small group of generous-spirited like-minded cheerleaders to lend a hand, the untangling can begin.
Yes, a Me-Treat will help you to find your voice and it will help you to believe in yourself and your story. It may be a little challenging and you may not be quite sure of the colour of the wool that you start to extract, but you will start to find the meaning you have been searching for.
Talking with Olga Mecking was a bit like chatting with myself 25 years ago when I was just a few years into my fledgling career as a freelance journalist. Olga is a polyglot, Polish by birth and living in the Netherlands with her German husband and three young children. She is totally dedicated to making it as a freelancer and her drive and passion make her the ideal role model for other new writers.
We meet in the coffee shop of The Hague’s Filmhuis and I almost miss her. I find her with her back to me, head bowed, reading a book on her iPad, sitting behind a pillar. But that’s typical of Olga I guess, for, despite living in the same city I have never bumped into her in the flesh so to speak. Online however, it is another story. That’s where I find her all the time.
I mentor new writers and have done so for more than ten years. Mostly they start by taking my Definite Articles course either online or in a live workshop and then I do my best to help them get a career off the ground, first with blogging, then writing articles for free and then moving to source hidden paid-for markets. I suggest my mentees and students write for six different places.
“I had been published in fewer than six, I think,” she tells me before taking a sip of her ginger tea. “Maybe six places but some of those were guest posts on other blogs.”
It is gratifying to find that the ‘rules’ I have been bashing my students over the head with for years still hold true and more gratifying still to discover that she, like me a few years ago, is pretty good at finding paying markets. Like me, she recognised that getting published, albeit for free, for a reputable publication would really give her career a leg up. My launchpad publication back in the 1980s was the Weekly Telegraph.
“I wanted to write for Huffington Post,” she explains. “They pay now by the way.”
Being able to say you have been published by a big name does wonders for the ego as well as the portfolio. Of course, Olga maintains her portfolio, over at OlgaMecking.contently.com and an impressive sight it is too. She began by blogging as EuropeanMama for seven years. She then moved up to being paid as a freelance and has three years under her belt.
“You need to read and write a lot,” she advises. “And to pitch and pitch. I have about three successes for every ten I send out and I try to pitch most days. Oh, and you need to think of yourself as a writer too.”
Now that is dedication, motivation and being serious about what she wants.
“It’s not just about pitching, though,” she continues. “You have to follow up once or twice too. I follow up first after a week. Many pieces were only picked up after my second follow-up call.”
We both agree that it’s vital a writer can ‘see where the stories are’. I believe that a writer can spot a paying market too. This is why Olga spends so much time online.
Like me, Olga gets bored quickly. She has found it hard to stay within one niche and finds the expat issue niche to be too limited. She rarely writes for EuropeanMama now. But one thing that never bores us is writing in any form or genre. Olga has produced an anthology of posts by bloggers in the Netherlands, called Dutched Up and has just translated her grandfather’s holocaust memoir into English. One Chance in a Thousand is now available on Amazon.
It is impossible, for me at least, to live in the Netherlands and not visit the Keukenhof gardens. First established in the 17th Century this 20- hectare site becomes aglow with fragrance and colour as it opens its doors to hundreds of thousands of visitors to its displays of spring flowers. We visited on Monday.
Having been in Malaysia for a few years it had been more than five years since my last visit and this time I noticed a change. Instead of swathes of block colour created from hyacinths, narcissi and tulips, they now had a joyful abundance of mixed beds. Beds with seven or more varieties in them, as varied in height and hue as an English country garden.
“Did you bring the SLR camera?” I asked Josh, half hoping he’d take a few photographs that would be better than mine and suitable for a blog.
“No,” he said. “I’m going to write word pictures instead.”
That’s my boy, I thought.
“I challenge you to a poem-off!” he declared.
And so, as the day went on we dueled with descriptions of the cherry trees, “with icy fingers stretching towards weak spring sunlight that turned its blossom into summer snowflakes,” and “the grass skirts” of the fritillaries among other things we failed to write down.
Then we were over by the lake, a favourite spot of mine.
Josh pointed at a deep pink hyacinth. “What colour is that one, Mum?” he asked.
“Pride!” I said and battle commenced.
Rich indigo was “pomp”, pale pink was “first love”, a peach one, “wedding day” and so on We had soon collected “pity” and “greed”, “shyness” and “obsequiousness” and with each appropriate word we were filled with an increasing sense of achievement and fun. Oh yes, that reminds me, a vibrant yellow was “glee”.
Yes, to me, this kind of exercise is simply fun. I made a mental note to add an exercise I shall call “A Flowering of Emotion” to all future Me-Treats. Join us in France (May) or Devon (July) to try it for yourself.
Do you ever people-watch? As I write this now my mother is sitting in our first floor apartment, with her chair turned to the window. She is looking out on the street below. Just sitting and watching.
I love looking out the window and when I eat my breakfast I gaze over the road at the café opposite. I notice the old man creak as he dismounts his bicycle and leans it against the wall before going into the post office. I watch a grey-haired lady in pearls, white shirt and jacket drink her coffee, read the paper and smoke a cigarette. I think she looks like Theresa May. My mother disagrees.
“Can you imagine Theresa May leaning against a wall having a fag break?” I ask.
As I sit and stare I notice the boxer dog opposite, nose pressed against the pane as he, like us, surveys the street. The jogger crosses the road, belly forwards, bottom back. He is shaped like an S. A For Sale sign has appeared on an upper floor. I muse about whether I have ever seen the occupants of that place.
The other folk sitting outside the café are looking at their phones. Like so many, these days, our default action, when left with an idle moment, is to distract ourselves by scrolling through screenloads of inanity. ‘Chewing gum for the mind,’ my friend Dave calls it.
In all of my writing classes I encourage students to stop, listen, look, smell and feel what is in front of them. I inspire them to pay attention and to step away from the chatter of social media, to feed their souls by simply being in the moment. It is only when we allow ourselves to decompress in this way that we can make the space in our minds for creative thought.
Next month, in France, we will pay attention among the fields and vineyards and the delightful grounds of Praana Wellness. We will eat slowly, enjoying our food and good conversation. We will fill our artist souls with chateaux and old stone towns. And we will write. In Devon, in July, we will take our fill of nature, down by the millstream, the wetlands and the willows, way way down the winding lane that feels like we are entering a magic rabbit hole.
Today, perhaps, give yourself a treat and look out of the window for a while.
My second Writing Me-Treat ended just two weeks ago and though I have been teaching writing for more than 20 years now, I never ceased to be amazed by the positive feedback I receive at the end. Sure, I had planned it carefully, ensuring that we had a mix of lessons, excursions, free time, homework, feedback, writing in cafés, walks and healthy food. I had a hunch that visits to art galleries would inspire the Me-Treaters and was thrilled to see they loved the Panorama Mesdag and the Vermeer Centrum as much as I do. It was my first time running it in The Hague, where I live and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I admit that I was nervous.
Allow me to share here some of the surprises…
What surprised me at the last Me-Treat in November in Penang and surprised me just as much this time, is the way everyone seems to get along. Perhaps it is a given that people attending a writing event only come because they like words and thus, connected by a common passion, soon bond.
2. Brave writing
In a safe place, everyone gets braver about their writing, pushes their envelopes and embraces writing exercises that are designed to stretch them. During the five days we worked on poetry, mindful writing, metaphor, character, place, history and fiction. They gamely attempted new genres and dared to bare their souls at times too.
It was a small group. Frankly, I would never take more than eight people anyway and this time we had six. They were Canadian, Indian, British and American. They lived in India, Switzerland, Australia and The Hague. All were mothers. All had an open mind.
But what surprised me most of all was the laughter. The new friendships. The way words shared in this safe space are sacred, important.
We ate out at lunchtimes, but in the evenings I had planned a mix of dinners in restaurants or at my home. What surprised me here was that they preferred home-cooking, embraced the fact that the mealtime conversations could not be overheard by strangers. So, I cancelled the dinner reservation for the last night and worked on a third three-course menu with my son, Joshua, who was our cook and bottlewasher for the week.
I am so relieved that the retreats In France (May) and Devon (July) feature the same dining privacy and home-cooking.
6. To hotel or not to hotel
This time three Me-Treaters lived locally and three stayed in the wonderful Mozaic Hotel across the street from my home. I was surprised to learn that it was just as much of a retreat for the locals, despite the fact that they returned to real life between 10 pm and 10 am each day, as for those in the hotel.
We experienced a number of lessons and I learned that my Me-Treaters like lessons very much but that my creative ideas for venues don’t necessarily work. I taught inside at our dining table, sitting cozily by the fire, in a café (can be noisy), on a tram on the way to Delft (very noisy – note to self not to do this again!), at a gallery (hard to teach and be heard when you have to whisper) and in the street (no fun in the rain). I was surprised, when reading the feedback forms, that everyone rates lessons higher than food and excursions. Another note to self for next time – more learning.
And so, as I look forward to my third Writing Me-Treat, held at the glorious petit chateau of Chez Vallée, home to Amanda Graham and Praana Wellness, in Charente, France, I am relieved to know that it will be a safe space, with delicious home-cooked meals enjoyed on our own terrace, a private barn in which to take lessons, yoga morning and evening to ease us into the most creative mood and special places in which to bond, make friends, expand our writing envelopes, relax, share and laugh. Oh, and if you live locally to Amanda, in Jonzac, you can also join in the fun.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, recommends that if you are serious about being a writer you should do two things on a regular basis:
For the purpose of this post I am going to write about the Artists' Date.
Julia believes that you can ‘fill the well’ of inspiration by going out, alone, in silence for just 20 minutes. During this time you will simply ‘pay attention’ and be more mindful of what is going on around you. You will look at things more closely, the brickwork on the house opposite, the way that, in late winter, branches come to life with one, two or even three buds. You will notice that some buds are pointier than others. You will run your hand over the bark of a tree and realise it is smooth as skin or rough as clawmarks on the flesh of prey.
As you wander, you will perhaps get closer to the spirit of William Wordsworth, the poet who wrote Daffodils and see how he believed that nature was the source of all joy. By taking an Artist’s Date you become more mindful. You slow down.
“Wisdom is oftentimes nearer when we stoop than when we soar,” he wrote.
I find that when I consciously take the time to notice things metaphors and similes fall into my lap. The birdsong is a squeaky seesaw. The tiles are small and shiny, like baby teeth.
Taking a walk outside in nature provides me with a huge injection of inspiration as well as the joy Wordsworth speaks of. If I sit in a café I start to make up stories based on the other diners. If I go to an art gallery, I imagine the stories behind the paintings and so on.
When I lived in Norway and it was deepest winter and pouring with rain so I did not want to be outside, I would wander through shopping centres, but still my interest would be piqued. I’d notice the window displays and wonder what it might be like for the mannequins to stand so still and what they might be looking at.
My dear friend, Christine Cooke of Watermill Cottages, where I will be holding the Devon Writing Me-Treat in July, and Anne Rainbow of The Red Editing Pen are now holding regular Artists’ Date meetings under the name of Wednesday Writers. I urge you to attend if you are not too far away.
While I will be conducting Mindful Artists’ Date walks in nature at my Writing Me-Treats in France and Devon.
As a publisher, teacher and editor my students and authors often ask me how they can write plausibly and effectively about their own lives. They fear being seen as narcissistic and want to know how they can be sure that what they write is useful to others and not boring nor self-indulgent.
At the Ways With Words Daily Telegraph Literary Festival in Dartington, Devon, in July 2015, I was fortunate to attend a talk by Paul Heiney who wrote a memoir called One Wild Song, about his experience in the wake of his 23-year-old son’s suicide.
In 2006 Heiney’s son, Nicholas, took his own life. In 2011 Paul, a keen sailor, decided to voyage from Devon to Cape Horn and back, mostly alone. A journey of 18,000 miles, 11,000 of which were alone.
It was shortly after Nicholas had passed away that Paul and his wife, Libby Purves, were sorting out their son's bedroom. There, tucked away at backs of drawers and in odd places, they found scraps of paper containing snatches of prose, thoughts or poetry. Some of it seemed very good. Both felt that their son would have wanted his writing to be seen by others yet recognised that he had not had the confidence while alive to share it. And it was while they were deep in their own grief that both had a very strong feeling that their son’s death should not be in vain. Nicholas had been studying English at Oxford and, aware, that as his parents, Paul and Libby were probably biased, they sought the second opinion of their son’s tutor. He agreed that Nicholas' work was exceptional and so, after forming their own publishing company, Silence at the Song’s End, was published. You can find out more at The Silence at the Song's End.
“Some good must come of this,” they had said and it was for this reason that Paul decided to embark on his voyage of discovery. It seemed appropriate. Nicholas too had sailed.
“He had understood it more profoundly in six years” than Paul had in more than 40 years of sailing himself. Nicholas had, at sea, discovered what he called, “the least lonely nowhere in the world.”
Paul left Brixham in a sailing boat they named Wild Song after one of their son’s poems.
“I did this to be alone and to be with,” he explained at the start of a talk that he promised would not be maudlin. “It is a celebration of how you have to get hold of grief and give it a damn good shake and make it work for you.”
Many writers embarking on their memoirs struggle with several issues. They struggle with the imposter syndrome, the ‘who am I to presume others will want to read my story’. They struggle with their motives for writing it. Is it self-indulgent? Is it narcissistic? Does it matter? Does it have a purpose?
Heiney believes that, “What does matter is not how we record our existence but that we do record it.” He hopes that “some ideas are planted in others’ minds that otherwise might not have come about.”
And as we heard about the peace and acceptance Heiney discovered in the face of solitude, of time to reflect and times when he was vulnerable and in danger, we are moved to the edge of tears by his story, by scraps of Nicholas’ wonderful poetry, crammed with meaning and insight and by some wonderful description from the author himself as he found great beauty too.
Heiney talked of the night he was alone in the Atlantic. The sea was flat as glass. There was no moon. He could not see the horizon and the stars that filled the black dome of sky were reflected in the ocean. He describes this as if he were “floating in a bowl of stars”. When surrounded by glaciers, in almost total silence he claimed, “the sound of a glacier cracking is the holiest sound there is.”
To finish, he played a short video about his voyage. A photograph of Nicholas, waving from high up in the crow’s nest of a tall ship and a short clip of him leaning against the rail on deck, with the wind blowing his dark curls are juxtaposed with clips from Paul’s voyage as well as the voice of a young boy reading some of the most exquisite poetry I have ever heard.
If you have a story that needs telling then please think of this: that it is better that you do record it, whichever method you may choose and that, if you move, inspire or plant ideas in your readers that, “some good must come of this.”
One Wild Song is published by Bloomsbury and is available from both real and virtual bookshops.
From 7-12 July this year, I will be running a Writing Me-Treat in Devon to coincide with The Ways With Words Festival and we will all attend an event and do some writing in the glorious grounds of Dartington Hall.
Every year, in The Hague, a Feel at Home in The Hague fair is held in the stadthuis. It’s a fun event, with food stalls, lots of clubs, a busy programme of performances and a bunch of workshops. I signed up for one called Writing For Love and Money, led by Lisa Friedman of Amsterdam Writers Workshops.
I expect you wonder why I bothered to attend a workshop I could have easily run myself. Well, let me tell you…
The room was packed to overflowing and I did feel a little guilty to have taken a place from someone who maybe needed it more. But, that didn’t last.
It was such fun to watch one of my peers lead a class and see how her teaching and mine overlap and contrast. I found many similarities unsurprisingly and thoroughly enjoyed picking up a few gems along the way.
When I attend a workshop I like to go ‘quote-spotting’. By this I mean that I write down, verbatim, the best, most useful and wisest things that the teacher or speaker says. And you know, I learned a LOT!
Ten Gems from a Writing Workshop
Here, in a nutshell, are the ten, yes, TEN things I heard that I thought were worth sharing with you now. Ready?
I recommend that you all grab opportunities to attend workshops whenever you can. Thank you Lisa Friedman.
author, journalist, teacher and poet
'Sharing what I know to help others to grow.'
Jo Parfitt has published 31 books, helped more than 100 authors get into print and more than 1,000 to begin writing. She's an inspiring, compassionate and encouraging teacher.
Jo has run Summertime Publishing since 1997. She has lived abroad for almost 30 years – in France, Dubai, Oman, Norway, the Netherlands, Brunei and Malaysia. She specialises in inspiring others who write about expatriate issues.
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