Monday, December 27, 2010

Retreating, and bringing it back home

I have been meaning to write about my retreat experience for a while but other blog posts got in the way. Well, I have been thinking about it a lot, as well as those new year's resolutions again, because those 10 days at Anam Cara at the beginning of the month were the closest I have come to bliss in a long, long time. On previous occasions at AC, I have received majorly good news - Salt offered me the book deal there in 2007, I won the Binnacle Ultra Short Comp in 2009 - but those have tended to be somewhat of a distraction from The Work. And the reason I went - with my two great friends, Vanessa Gebbie  (who had just received her own amazing news) and Sue Guiney, was to work. To write. 

It felt like I hadn't done any "proper" writing for months and months. Or perhaps years. I've been reading Paris Review interviews (the latest with Jonathon Franzen and Louise Erdrich), and both were talking about how important it is to have your next project in the works when a book comes out. And I've talked here before about how I most certainly did not have that. I had no clue. I hadn't believed that my book would actually be published, it was utterly unreal, and I had spent the 15 months from book deal to publication mostly holding my breath. I couldn't get down to anything that required concentration - so i set up The Short Review as a distraction. (Ah yes, beware of those "small" distractions!)

That was when I started really devoting myself to flash fiction - it was and is a sort of "instant gratification" for me in terms of the process. It's heady, addictive, for me it happens in one "splurge", on sitting, with some tinkering afterwards but not the same kind of revising that goes on with a longer story, the kind of story you carry around with you in your head for weeks and months. I didn't have that head space, it was filled with ecstatic anxiety!

And then, when the book came out, was that when life got back to normal? Yeah, right. More things to fill your head, namely the question "How can I get people to read it?", which whirls around and around...

So, basically, to cut this very long story short, we three had planned this retreat in August and I was desperate for December to come because, 2 years after publication, I have my Arts Council grant for the Next Book (or Project, as I prefer to think of it in order to psychologically fool myself) but hardly any time or head space to write it. I've been so incredibly lucky over the past 15 months since we moved to England, I have had wonderful invitations to read, meet with book groups, teach workshops, around the country. But for me, if I know on a Sunday that the week coming up includes some kind of event, I feel like I can't relax, can't settle down into my writing. It's mad, I need to get over that. But first, I needed that 10 days to get myself on track.

And get myself on track it did. I was worried - always worried, see?? - that I wouldn't be able to get down to work. I had a commissioned story to write (for Comma Press's exciting anthology of fiction inspired by scientific breakthroughs) which I hadn't been able to physically write due to hand pain. What if that took the whole 10 days? Okay, not the worst thing. But I wanted to do more. 

Let's just say that it couldn't have gone better. The story for Comma, which had been causing me anxiety because it had to be a minimum of 2500 words and the longest story I've written since 2007 is 1500, had been spinning in my head for so many weeks that it all came out. (I had to write it in short flash-like sections and then actually printed it out, cut them up and rearranged them by hand, which was fun and so tactile). First, I was relieved since I was on deadline. Second, I learned I could write something over 2500 words (about one word over...). Third, it was done by day 2, so I had 8 more days to do more!

And do more I did. This involved all sorts of writing related things, from transcribing stories and beginnings of stories from my notebooks to the computer to adapting a flash story into a poem for a poetry competition (thanks, Sue!), and reviewing a fabulous short story collection for The Short Review.  And, much to my astonishment, it resulted in my starting to write something so far out of my usual "comfort zone" that I don't know what to call it! It seemed to be a result of reading 5 books by Fred Vargas in as many weeks. I don't normally read crime thrillers, but was intrigued by Sarah's blog post in October. So I got one book out of the library. And was delighted. So I got another... and another... These books are not just well-written, but they are funny and quirky, no-one says the predictable thing. They are steeped in Frenchness, which is lovely for a Francophile like me, and they are not really about the whodunnit but about the characters, who are singular and fascinating. 

What really inspired me was the humour but also the way Vargas (who is female) uses an omniscient narrator who moves from one character's head to another, often on the same page, and how well this works. I had always thought this would impede flow, I don't think I'd seen it done well before.

Whatever it was, something was released in me, and I have started "something" which is now 3000 words and not yet finished, and dips into the heads of at least 5 characters. And more importantly, it makes me laugh as I write! I have no idea what might happen, if it's some sort of crime thing, but right now I don't care. I occasionally write short stories that make me smile but more often than not they disturb me and sometimes upset me, so this is the most wonderful contrast.

Fear not, I am still writing short stories, working on my Arts-Council-funded project inspired by the biochem lab I am in and the 100-year-old biomathematics text book. The retreat helped me figure out what I have already done and where I might be going. I just really hope I can hold onto even 10% of the feeling I had there - with nowhere I had to be, nothing I had to do, not even make meals or feed the cats or even talk to anyone during the day - then I might be able to keep this up. I have my new study set up in our new house  while we consider options for my writing shed (when the freeze is over) and in it I have a single bed donated by a friend (thanks, Alison!) because I learned at Anam Cara how important it is to have a horizontal option in my writing space. I get all my best ideas at night, in bed, so why not try and simulate that at other times?

I am, once again, as I did last year, I am trying to cut down on online distractions. I have a note stuck up on the wall above my desk with a list of things I musn't do ("check Amazon rankings", "check website and blog stats")... and so far, today, I haven't done any of them. It's a start. Yes, I've played online Scrabble, but I still stick to my conviction that that does actually help the writing. Time will tell!

Anyway, Happy New Year of Writing to you all, I look forward to hearing great news from all of you, dear blog readers, thanks for being here, whether I know you're here or not. Feel free to say hello!


Neil said...

Hi Tania,

That retreat sounds truly blissful.

Reading on your blog lately about how busy you've been with readings, launches and other events, I've often wondered how someone so involved in the 'literary scene' can find any time for actual writing. It's one of the perils of being successful, I suppose.

Tania Hershman said...

Hi Neil, nice to meet you, thanks for taking the time to comment. And yes, it's hard to find the time to write. I guess I spent the first 15 months in the UK not wanting to say no to anything, like a kid in a sweet shop... but now I need to start saying no, but not to everything, I hope. I think it's less that I'm "successful" than that I am a bit of a novelty, the whole science-inspired thing!

Rachel Fenton said...

So pleased you got over the nerves to write something - fingers crossed for you with your new project - sounds wonderful! As does your retreat! Trust your talent - you'll do good. Happy New year, too!

Sue Guiney said...

Just starting to dip back into blogs after a wild but good Xmas, and it's great to be reminded about our wonderful retreat. We definitely must find a way to make it an annual thing!

Tania Hershman said...

Rachel, thank you! You are lovely, Happy New Year to you too!

Sue, welcome home, glad your Xmas was wild in a good way. And yes, an annual slice of heaven, definitely!

Group 8 said...

Hi T, happy 2011.I'm glad AC was good for you.Long may you write. N x

Louise Halvardsson said...

Hello! So happy you got what you wanted out of the retreat. I made my own retreat at my parents place in Sweden. So important to get that focus away from everything. Am trying to only read and write blogs once a week ... Your blog is one of my favourite writing once, as you are so generous with information as well as sharing bits of your own writing process. Keep going!