Last weekend we went to an afternoon concert given by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. They were playing Mahler’s 5th and a piano concerto by Haydn. I was vaguely familiar with the Mahler though I knew and recognised only the adagietto. I hadn’t a clue about the Haydn but we went because it was over the road from our temporary apartment and because we’d move out in less than a week and because we could. It was only ten quid each too, so a real bargain.
Unsure of how I’d cope with such a long concert of unfamiliar music I took along my notebook and pen.
During the first movement I found myself compelled to write down what the music made me see. I saw an army of soldiers on horseback, muskets loaded, led by a drummer, charging into battle. When the movement reached a close, I immediately regretted what I had done. By taking notes I had not really experienced the music. I had neither listened properly, nor taken the time to study the musicians, how their chests, bodies, limbs and bows moved with the music.
So, for the next movement I decided to close my eyes. Ouch! That’s a dramatic movement too and I found it way too loud. So, I did an experiment. I wondered if by opening my eyes I’d lower the impact of the sound. It worked! But the moment I started watching the orchestra and listening, I lost the experience, the essence of simply listening to the music. I found a solution, and stared with soft focus eyes at my skirt and thus could really hear the music.
By the adagietto I was ready to try and listen with eyes closed again. I knew it would not deafen me and, as the bit I knew, I’d really enjoy it. Oh boy, did I enjoy it, feeling the vibrations and noticing how they moved in my body. It was sublime, reaching those places in my heart that only fine music, beautifully played, can reach. Ian thought I’d fallen asleep! This was by far the most delicious way to enjoy an adagio.
Of course, as soon as the concert was over I opened my notebook to record my findings. Can’t help myself, you see.
I’d realised that our senses are generally divided up between those in use and that indeed, if I closed my eyes, my hearing became more acute. I was like a gleeful child with my discovery.
The next day, I saw I’d missed Eva László-Herbert’s interview on Lost in Transition, led by Dr Paulette Bethel. Eva is a friend of mine and a wordsmith to the core. I listened to the repeat show that was still online and was blown away with her words and at times was moved to tears by her erudition and eloquence. I reached for a pen to write down some of her wisdom and immediately lost the gist of the next sentence. Her best three words were these: ‘paper is patient’. Genius.
Eva is a simultaneous interpreter and I have no clue how she can listen to what is being said while expressing what was just said in another language, but I digress. I may be a woman and supposedly able to multitask but I simply can’t listen and write at the same time. Nor can I listen and read as I went on to discover.
After 45 minutes of Eva’s one-hour talk I noticed an App button was jumping up and down from the dock on my computer. I felt compelled to take a look – and immediately lost the thread of her conversation.
When I consider how many evenings I allow myself to pick up any Facebook messages or Whatsapps while I am watching a film, or how youngsters are constantly messaging their friends when at the dinner table, I realise there is no way we can be engaged in reality while we are engaged in something else.
Which is why I hereby vow not to take a notebook with me when I do something that really inspires me, like go for a walk in nature or listen to an author being interviewed. I know for sure, now, that by writing and listening or writing and experiencing at the same time I will lessen the experience of being in the moment and that my writing will suffer as a result.
I am a habitual note taker, so I am not quite sure how I will cope and if I will remember the important bits later. But somehow, I think that anything I do remember later, like the best line from a play or a great piece one of my students wrote, was worth remembering. So then, I will write it down.
I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to stop writing and stop using social media for a moment and really start to experience the inspiration that comes your way.
How it things used to be
I was pretty shocked a couple of years ago when one of my children, then in his late teens, asked me where you put the stamp on a letter. He also asked me where you wrote the address on the envelope.
When I was at school we were taught how to write letters, complete with our address top right and theirs top left, above the salutation. These days everyone sends text messages and emails. Sometimes we don’t even bother to add ‘Dear’ and the recipient’s name. We never worry about whether to use ‘yours sincerely’ or ‘yours faithfully’ at the end. We just write ‘cheers’ or ‘best wishes’ and type, not sign, our name.
Overhearing conversations between young people I often hear them saying, “I’ve been talking to so and so,” when they mean they have been emailing, texting, Whatsapping or Facebook messaging them. Sorry, folks, that is not ‘talking’.
I don’t know about you, but when I send emails, I tend to write fast and short. When I read emails I read fast too.
But when I first went abroad 25 years ago, my mother and I wrote letters to each other every Sunday. Thin blue airmail paper and thin blue envelopes with red, white and blue borders, remember? From about Wednesday onwards, I’d eagerly await the sound of Ian’s key in the lock at the end of the day, in the hope that he’d have my letter from home with him. I’d curl up on the sofa and read it through, savouring every word. I’d read it again the next day too and maybe a third time. I’d pass it to Ian and he’d read it and then we’d maybe chat a bit about the parochial goings on in Rutland and how she’d just won first prize of 25p in the local flower show.
At Christmas I write a newsletter, print and post it, my signature and a brief note added to the end, to about 100 people. But that doesn’t count, does it?
Today, as I start a new life with Ian in Kuala Lumpur, the thought of writing letters didn’t cross my mind. Oh no, I had a better idea – I’d write a blog and then my mother, my brother, my friends and anyone else who cared could read something I’d only had to write once. And so http://www.sunnyinterval.com began and I’m thoroughly enjoying posting on it once or twice a week. Writing a blog has become a bit like a diary, allowing me to savour everything that happens knowing I need to pay special attention in case I write about it later. And then I relive it when I write it down and am delighted when people I really care about, and some I never even met, write comments.
Writing a blog brings out the ‘columnist’ in me. The person who wants to write about the mundane in a fun and hopefully compelling way. It lets me practise writing with focus, a purpose and a beginning, middle and end and it lets me write in stories.
Sometimes I put a poem on the blog. I’ve loved writing poetry for my entire life, but it wasn’t until two years ago that I allowed myself the joy of writing several a month. The thing I love about poetry as a medium is that it lets me be more honest and vulnerable about the way I feel or how something has affected me. Only, with a poem, I can wrap the sometimes painful truth up in a metaphor, thereby protecting me a little and allowing readers a peek inside my soul.
So, armed with a diary, of course, my blog and an exercise book for poems, I thought had it all covered.
Then my son, who lives in London, set me a challenge.
“I want you to write me letters,” he said.
“But we can Skype,” I replied. “And Facebook message. We have Whatsapp and email.”
“But I want you to write me letters.”
“OK.” I gulped. “Will you write back, then?” I had visions of renewing my Sunday date with pen and paper and never receiving anything in return, never knowing whether my letters arrived and if he even liked them.
“Tell you what,” he suggested. “You write first, then I’ll reply. Then you reply to me. Like that.”
What a brilliant idea! Isn’t that how my letter writing life used to be when, before the days of email my old girlfriends and I would correspond throughout the year?
And so, quietly excited at the prospect, I went on a hunt for that thin blue airmail paper of yore. I discovered they don’t sell it in the high street any more. For shame. I learned though, through a Facebook plea, that a website called Etsy has it. Anyway, on my first day in KL I bought some proper red, white and blue envelopes and some thinnish yellow paper and on Sunday I wrote my first letter in years and years.
Do you know what? I loved it. I found it opened a part of me that had not been used in ages. I wrote myself dry on topics that, in an email, I’d touched on and in a blog I’d focused on trying to describe in a writerly way, rather than just how I felt. I told him things I’d already told him about briefly on Skype. This was different. And dare I say it, better? I wrote in more detail and watched the pages fall away as, after about half an hour, I’d actually only written about one part of our new life. After 8 sides of paper, I realised that was probably all the envelope could stand and went hunting for a post office.
I am excited that Josh set me this challenge. It has awoken a dormant part of my writing self and it has surprised me. Over the decades since email, I have begun to take the stacatto bursts of communication for granted and considered them normal. They are a new normal. I think I preferred the old ways.
It’s been a bit of a watershed for me recently, as my youngest son, Joshua, has declared that he wants to perform some of his poems at open mic events. I am a bit of a poet myself and the fact that my son has decided to do something that is close to my heart has been a bit like looking myself in the mirror and giving myself the advice that I wish I’d had when I was 20. It’s weird though, because I’m his mum. And, as many of you will know, when a mother gives her own child advice it is not always taken the right way because, well, you’re his mother. It’s much the same with praise. I mean, did you believe it when your parents praised you, or did you think they were just being nice?
When Josh first came to me and bemoaned the fact that he did not believe he was any good, I told him to go forth and do two things first and foremost:
2 Get feedback from your target audience
Well, he did the practise all right. He must have written hundreds of poems in the last year. But the feedback. Like all of us he found that tough, and he didn’t really believe me when I told him his work was good. Like many newbies he was nervous about sharing his work and often I knew I was the only other person to have read some of them.
I am always frustrated by writers who never show their work to another living soul. To my mind, if you don’t share and ask for feedback you are not serious about writing. But then, if you don’t share, you can preserve your dream of being a writer someday. If you share your work and discover you were deluded about its quality, then you run the risk of losing your dream.
If you are a new writer and are at the ‘need to practise and get feedback’ stage, then of course you need to write regularly and often. One of the best ways to achieve both the practise and the feedback in one go is to start a blog that focuses on the topics you want to write about. A poet would start a poetry blog. A memoirist would write a blog or columns or articles and a novelist could enter short story competitions. There is no question that you must have both practise and feedback. You cannot have one without the other. If not, then, as I said, you are not seriously looking for success.
So, I did for him what I wish I had had myself at that age, and here is my third piece of advice:
3 Get a mentor
I looked to see whom he most admired, who was out there, performing in London, where Josh lives, and discovered that was Anthony Anaxagorou. Along the way, I started to follow Anthony’s work too and learned a hell of a lot myself. I found Anthony on Facebook (of course, anyone who is serious about getting out there must be on Facebook) and sent him an email, asking if he would mentor my son. He agreed. Josh was not at all convinced this was a good idea to start with, but soon realised I had been right. He was receiving feedback from someone he trusted and admired. Importantly, he learned the value of polishing until his piece was in the best shape it could be. Better than anything, Anthony told him about where he could find possible poetry gigs in London.
Being mentored is a wonderful experience, but so is being a mentor. As many f you know I give advice, based on my own experience and of course, mistakes, to other people all the time. Some of them listen. Some don’t believe me, some have better ideas and I learn from them. I love helping others to achieve the things I have achieved and I think anyone else out there who has ever mentored anyone will agree that assisting others to do what you already do pretty well is both rewarding and validating. Advising your own child is probably the hardest type of mentoring you can ever do, because, as a rule, they don’t believe you, don’t listen and think they know better. However, watching someone take those first tentative steps and start climbing the writing ladder provides the greatest of joys.
If you want to find a mentor then I suggest you seek out someone who is already doing what you want to achieve and doing it well. If they are also involved in the market you want to break into then all the better. Most people are flattered to be asked and some are willing to help you pro bono, others will charge a fee. Even if you do have to pay you will find that a mentor will open doors for you, show you shortcuts and share connections.
When my team and I helped Linda Janssen to write and publish her recent book, The Emotionally Resilient Expat, I was utterly delighted to see that she had done every single thing I had ever suggested she do – and I mean everything. She even started off with a blog, Adventures in Expatland. To see her book now receiving the most fabulous of reviews is gratifying in the extreme. I am ‘chuffed to bits’ (non-Brits may need to look that word up, sorry).
So there you have them – my top three pieces of advice for a new writer. If you want to achieve all three in one fell swoop then nothing can beat taking a writing course that includes in class feedback for homework completed between sessions. The teacher becomes a mentor and he or she, together with your fellow students, will give you feedback. Residential classes are great, but I have found classes given once a week or somesuch are equally valuable and more affordable. In the last month two of my own students have taken residential courses with the Arvon Foundation in England and been delighted.
As I head off for a four year posting with my husband in Kuala Lumpur later this month I realise I do sometimes take my own advice too. The first thing I have done before I have even set foot in the country is to find myself some mentors –people who are already living there, people who like the same things as me and people who can connect me to the things that will, I hope, allow me to ‘fly’ there too.
Don’t worry. This does not mean the end of Summertime Publishing. Far from it. With 80 books and 50 authors in ‘the stable’, Summertime Publishing Ltd has now been incorporated in England and will continue to help new writers to write and publish books on living abroad.
promotion & publicity
A few months ago I was invited to contribute a story about turning my business round for a company called Crave, led by entrepreneur and author, Melody Biringer. I have always been impressed with her inspiring ideas but also how she is always ready to admit to her mistakes. In her book about her many businesses and what worked and what didn’t, she even has sections called Aha and Uh-o to showcase what she did right and what she did wrong. Admitting to our mistakes can, in turn, help us to become successful.
I too am someone who never minds admitting to my mistakes. In fact, I believe it is the fact that I have made SO many mistakes that I can now proudly claim to have published 80 books and to have more than 50 authors in my Summertime Publishing stable.
Flipped -it, is an ebook and I am proud to have been included along with many other entrepreneurs.
You see, not only do we learn from our mistakes, but we also learn by seeing what other people are doing and trying to do it too. Melody and her team recognise the value of having lots of contributors to a book because the more people you involve and the more people they have in their networks, the more people will ultimately find out about that book. And the more people find out about your book, the more copies you are likely to sell.
However, Melody has also learned the value of doing things for free and of sharing. And so, as part of the ‘deal’ for being included in Flipped It, all the contributors were invited to blog and tweet and facebook about the book. In addition, they are invited to take part in what they are calling a Video Summit, by which those who take part and share their stories, are interviewed by Skype by the Smart Simple Marketing Coach Sydni Craig-Hart. Those interviews are then recorded and, again, all those who took part are invited to share those videos and news of the summit.
Do you see how clever this is? Videos are the mos shared items out there on the internet, and so it makes sense to create videos connected with your project. I blogged about just this myself a few weeks ago (see here).
But I expect you want to hear my flip-it story don’t you? About what went wrong in my business and how I turned it around, so that I know have a business that earns me money in my sleep. Well, of course you can read my story in the book. But you can also watch me talk about it in my video, which is part of the Video Summit. I can tell you now that Sydni is a great interviewer! I would say that though, wouldn’t I, because she agreed with everything I said about networking, passion, niche, making things happen and lessons learned.