Oh hello, 2021. No, no fanfare, no red carpet for you, but, if you would like, come sit on this old broken-down sofa and join me for tea. Don’t be shy, I’ve no expectations. You may be new, but I am too old to be taken in by shiny pretty new things. Ignore the the clamouring crowd outside. They don’t know you, though they’ve waited long enough. None of us do, yet. They’re just excited, because you are not your predecessor, so you’ve been deemed a success by what you are not.
So much weight on your young shoulders. As if you’re in control of what will happen, rather than just a vessel. But you’re unblemished, and full of promise, something to pin the feathers of hope to with a safety pin.
Yesterday, on the last day of 2020, I could not stand, or walk, or wash, or dress, or sit up for long. Most of the day was spent in bed, unwashed for three days, unable to form words, or keep my eyes open, while my mind raced inside my skull and I held onto walls and doors for visits to the bathroom. Today I showered and dressed and spoke and wrote and walked briefly in the freezing cold air and ate my meals sat on a chair, enjoying the strength of my body that wasn’t there yesterday and may not be there tomorrow, because those moments are rare and are to be savoured no matter the hour, the day, the year.
I ask nothing of you and I hope we can be friends. Don’t let your tea get cold. Have a biscuit.
I am taking my mother to the theatre for a birthday treat. “What do you want to see?”, I say.
“Nothing weird”, she says.
“What do you call ‘weird’?”
“I don’t know”.
“Ok, leave it with me”.
Perhaps I am impatient. Perhaps I am a fool. (Perhaps I just want more to blog about). But I want something to HAPPEN.
She is there again this morning. Looking annoyed until she sees me and her face opens into that huge smile, like she’s genuinely pleased that I’m there. And even though she hasn’t made me a coffee in quite a while, she remembers just how I like it, doesn’t even have to check.
“Hey!” she says
“Hey, how are you?”
There is a queue and she’s handling several orders, she doesn’t have time to chat. When she goes back to steaming the milk, her smile leaves her. And I think, hmmm, what now? Should I do something? Should I take this forward? What happens now?
But, but, here’s the thing(s):
- She might be resolutely straight. I had a conversation with my mother recently: “I don’t know how you can tell”, she said, I never know when a woman is gay”. “Welcome to my world!” I said. “I never know either. It’s a bloody nightmare!”.
- We might have bugger all in common.
- Am I just being a total idiot about this and I should just leave it alone and stop poking it with a stick just because people like reading about it and her smile makes me smile and I get a bit excited every time I go to get a coffee and my heart sinks a little whenever she’s not there?
- How on earth, if I was to actually, er, I dunno…ask her out or something, would I do that? HOW?
- Again, am I being a total idiot etc…?
So. I need your help, Dear Reader. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Over to you.
She sees me before I see her. “Hey!” she says and smiles.
“Hey!” I say and smile back.
I have just emerged from the lift and I look like shit. Of course I do – four hours sleep, messy hair, no make-up and I am wearing an old grey cagoule that my mother bought at a jumble sale for 99p.
She was on ‘holiday’ she says, finishing her dissertation, doing job placements. There is no coffee counter between us. She isn’t in uniform and my lanyard is hidden. Here we are, in a small frustrated crowd of folks waiting for the lift, chatting like normal people, like acquaintances, like two old friends.
She is tired. I am tired. We compare tiredness. Perhaps I should tell her I am so tired, I need a lie down and would she care to join me (here, let’s get you out of those wet clothes…)?
I don’t, of course.
Her lift arrives, others get in, but she keeps chatting. This happens at least three times. As if she’s in no hurry to leave.
Aaaaargh!!! Staring at a blank screen, writing something, deleting it, wondering how you ever managed to complete anything before when the drivel that is coming out of you now is so rancid, the prose so decrepid and puerile that you should be taken in front of the Judge of Writing, court martialled and then shot. You are that judge, of course. The nasty little voice saying nasty little things about what you’re getting down on paper, on screen. You are the “Creative devil” laughing at any attempts you make.
You set yourself a challenge last week to write a blog every day for the month of May. Already you have failed. This is no reason not to get back up and carry on anyway. You have learned this, over the years.
This morning you write three lines about a trip to the Rivoli Ballroom on Saturday night, decide it’s crap, look at Facebook, watch every interview of the entire cast of The Crimson Field on the BBC website and then an interview with the scriptwriter, Sarah Phelps, which leads you to procrastinate further on the BBC Writersroom blog, where you find this: Getting through Writer’s Block: Established television writers share their strategies for getting through writer’s block.
Your favourite tip from this video comes from Toby Whithouse, writer of Being Human and No Angels, who says
What you need to do is to book a room above a pub for about two months time, tell all of your friends there is going to be a reading of your script and I guarantee you, you will get that script written. Because sometimes the only way to overcome writer’s block is to literally push through it.
This tip speaks to you because you are driven by deadlines and fear. Specifically the fear of completely humiliating yourself in front of an audience. It’s the reason why writing workshops are so great – just the idea of reading your work out in front of others forces you to work harder on it, to make it less shit. More importantly, to finish what you start.
As the self-proclaimed Queen of Procrastination, you can sniff out every excuse, every trick, every lie people tell themselves in order to get out of what they’re actually supposed to be doing. When you run the Queer Writers Retreat for example, the first thing you do is get the writers to hand in their mobile ‘phones. You all chat and laugh and eat during the breaks, but when they sit back down in the Writing Room, a hush descends and the gentle tapping of keyboards and scratching of pens takes over. They’ve already agreed their goals for the day, they are there for one reason only. There is no distraction, no escape. It works.
There is of course, what you like to call “Productive procrastination”. Would you get any cleaning done if you weren’t putting off doing something else? The scarier the task, the cleaner the home. In fact, most of the boring chores you do seem to be a result of putting off doing something else. Sometimes you write stuff to avoid writing the thing you feel you’re supposed to be writing. And sometimes that avoidance writing turns out to be far more satisfying. This entire blog post, for example, has been an excercise in procrastination (you were supposed to be writing about Saturday night, remember?).
Be stubborn (you were born that way, you might as well utilise it). Force yourself, allow yourself, to write any old shit. As long as you’re getting something down, it is never a waste of time. You can make it good later. Remember the maxim: Don’t get it right, get it written.
Then get it right.
I finished my 30 Day Challenge on 30th November. It was exhausting, exhilharating, inspiring. My Queer Writers Retreat is up and running (and there’s an earlybird discount if you book before Christmas Eve), this blog is growing steadily and I now have the confidence to play, experiment, have fun with ideas in a way that my perfectionist self warned me against in the past.
And yet. The fear. It’s always there. Lurking.
I teach people free-writing*. I have abseiled off the top of a 500m building, done stand-up comedy, performed to a 200-strong rowdy audience wearing little else but my underwear and a long velvet cape, stood up to bullies. So why does a blank page hold such horror?
I have been re-reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I love this book. Love its humour, advice and wisdom. It’s candour. But most of all, I love the intimacy King creates, as if he is speaking only to me, as if this is just a relaxed conversation between us two. It is simply a joy to be in his company. (Hell, if he was writing about corporate tax law, I’d still lap it up.).
There are a couple of lines, near the end, that I want to screen-print onto a large poster, frame and hang on every wall in my house. To remind me. To remind me what you, and I, and everyone already knows deep down:
The scariest moment, writes King, is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.
Oh Stephen, you speak the truth!
So. Sit. Pick up your pen. And start.
*the art of just getting the fuck on with it
- How To Use Stephen King’s “On Writing” Advice (millieho.net)
I received the loveliest message today:
STEPHANIE. You have unblocked or unleashed something inside me and I am all spilly over with words, like sick with them, grrroooo. I had to get up at 5.45am to write. Goddam you!
This made me so happy! It’s one of the reasons I’ve started the Queer Writers Retreat – a whole day of writing with no distraction. It trials this Saturday and I’m excited, nervous and planning what cakes to bake*. It’s the time and space to nurture your writing, because in turn the writing will nurture you.
Let us all be “spilly over with words” 🙂
*lemon polenta and coffee & ginger, since you ask
So. Eight days ago, I started the Screw Work Let’s Play 30 Day Challenge. I’d signed up impulsively some time ago, forgetting that this month was already full of a demanding full-time day job, a weekly teaching gig at the Finchley Writers Workshop, devising and leading a Queer Kink Writing Workshop with Wotever World and performing some of my stories at LATES @ Flat Planet. I felt overwhelmed.
I had an idea, a fantasy, that I’d been nurturing in my mind for some time: A Queer Writers Retreat – a week-long retreat in a big grand house somewhere remote and beautiful. I had a vision of sitting in the sunshine looking at orange groves while listening to the scratching of pens, the tapping of keys and the crackle of creative minds coming from inside the house. In the evening, the pens would be laid to rest and the laptops closed as I served a lovingly-made dinner to the group at a big wooden dining table. Wine and conversation would flow, appreciative noises made as I served yet another delicious course and laughter would ring across the room. Later, we’d sit in the lounge by an open fire and read each other the stories we’d been working on that day. Sturdy friendships would be made, queer networks forged, projects begun. And the delightful noise would be replaced each morning with the sound of writing, writing, writing…
But grand houses overlooking orange groves are expensive, aren’t they? And how could I guarantee I’d break even after such a big layout, when no-one even knows who I am yet? “Why not start small?” suggested Selina, official “Play Guru”. And so I changed my immediate plans to something I could actually achieve, for little cash, within 30 days. This blog is part of it. And this is what I am offering:
“Picture this: A calm and cosy flat with two good-sized rooms for writing, for up to eight people. A relaxed but focused atmosphere. A lovely selection of tea, coffee and homemade cake in the kitchen whenever you feel like it. Gorgeous views and interesting things to look at, should you need a little visual stimuli. Essential oils to help you focus. A talented sounding board available all day, should you get truly stuck. An opportunity to relax at the end of the day with your peers and discuss your work over a glass of wine or a cuppa, should you so wish. And that warm satisfaction that comes from being utterly immersed in your work for an entire day and meeting, or even succeeding the terms of the pledge you made eight hours before.”
The basic elements are still there: the nurturing and taking care of people; giving people the time, space and encouragement to write; creating community; feeding them lovely stuff (you may have noticed I like to feed people – it’s my Jewish genes). But now it’s a one-day retreat, local and accessible.
I’ll be posting here to let you know how I get on. I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions. Encouragement is always nice too! And if you’re interested in coming along to the retreat, then be sure to leave me your email address and we’ll chat.