Dear Diary: Woe!

Thus began my first attempt at a written chronicle of my day-to-day life. I was twelve years old, which may account for the style. Or, then again, that might just be me.

Browne, Henriette - A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch - Google Art Project

I pursued the theme, off and on, for years. Jo Brand says that she re-reads her diary occasionally “to remind myself what a miserable, alienated old sod I used to be.” I don’t re-read mine, for similar reasons. I was probably only miserable a minority of the time, but that minority formed the majority of the time I wrote in my diary. When I was happy, I was too busy enjoying myself to bother telling an exercise book about it.

More enjoyably, I kept a joint diary with a friend for some time. We had two exercise books, and swapped them once a week, read what the other had written, and had a jolly good go at solving the problems of the universe together.

Once the circumstances of life drove us to different countries, my diarising became very intermittent, until I left university and suddenly found myself craving the word fix. The diary from that year is not so much miserable as simply too boring to re-read, although I’ve considered trying it as a remedy for sleeplessness.
The following year I moved to Wellington to study scriptwriting, which solved the word fix problem; but, being away from everyone I knew, I kept talking to the diary anyway. (Back to the miserable setting, alas.)

Budapešť 0158

Then the Caped Gooseberry and I started our long-distance courtship, and I gave up writing a diary, because why rewrite in a book what one has already typed out in an email? As I was unemployed that year (overqualified for any job I could do, underqualified for everything else), I sent a lot of emails. Certainly not miserable, but probably boring to any but the starry-eyed correspondents themselves.

Then I got a job, got engaged, and moved cities (all in a matter of weeks), which left me learning the new job full-time, planning a wedding and filling in weekends at a writing initiative in another city. Re-starting a diary somehow failed to make it back on to the To Do list. It wasn’t until a year or so later, when my spiritual director suggested I read The Artist’s Way, that I started regularly diarising, or journalling, or whatever you call it.

The early ‘morning pages’ read largely as repeated rants about how cold it was – I used to get up half an hour early for this – and how much I wanted to leave my job. (By now an experienced diarist, I was capable of being both miserable and boring at the same time.) Then I started blogging, and soon after had the idea to actually do the Artist’s Way exercises, over the course of a year. Which I did, more or less, blogging about it as I went. Luckily for the reading public, I never blogged the morning pages.


But by the end of that year, the morning pages had turned into a sort of spiritual diary. Largely, to be fair, me ranting at God, but then, God likes people to talk to him, even if all they do is yell. I think those early morning scribbles kept me sane, or at least out of depression’s grip. It seemed some days that was the only thing worth getting up for, and the only thing that could bear me through the day. I had to keep it up.

Once I left my job, I carried on with it, albeit at a much more civilized hour of the morning. (If God had intended humans to rise before dawn, he would have made us able to see in the dark.) I generally write in it six days a week, and sometimes include what’s been happening in my outer world, particularly when it affects my inner world.
No-one reads it but myself and occasionally the Caped Gooseberry. Oddly, considering that it’s a place for being honest with myself about deep and sometimes difficult things, it’s actually an enjoyable experience to re-read, unlike the “what I did today” diaries – or more accurately, the “what I felt about what I did today” diaries. Neither miserable nor boring – who’d have thought I had it in me?

I keep three other diaries, to my surprise; or rather, two diaries and an annal.

Sometimes going analogue is the only way to go. #writing #quill #ink #paperblanks #magic

One is the record of my writing work, written in a paperblanks week-at-a-time diary (a Foiled Mini Horizontal with a magnetic closure, if you’re a stationery junkie like myself). I keep track of what I worked on each day, as far as both the current Work In Progress and this blog are concerned. I also note other matters of writerly importance, such as how often the fountain pen requires refilling (a good indicator of how much writing I’m getting through) and when I buy ink, or a craft book.

The second diary only dates from the beginning of this month, and I am writing it on the computer – I really don’t know why. Why on the computer, that is. I’m not quite weird enough to write a diary without knowing why. It’s a very specialized diary, and I promise to tell you all about it – some other time. (It pleases me to be mysterious about the prosaic. Bear with me, I beg you.)

The annal is one which the Caped Gooseberry and I keep together. The book which houses it was a gift from my comrades at the DDJ – a beautifully bound blank-paged book in which, each anniversary, we sum up the happenings of the previous year. It is sometimes disturbing to look back and see how much one has forgotten, even of the ‘highlights’. Forgetting the photos which are taken at the same time is, in my case, a matter of self-defence – I am most decidedly not photogenic.

Christine de pisan

To finish on a completely random note, if you are looking for a fictional diary to read, I can highly recommend Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. A cut (or indeed, a whole slice) above the usual run of historical-fictional teenage girls’ diaries, and very funny to boot. This is one of those books where the reader becomes incapacitated with laughter and the book has to be passed around the room. (This is the voice of experience.)

Sadly, I fear posterity will find no such hilarity in my diaries, should I unaccountably fail to have them destroyed before I die. Posterity: consider yourself warned.

Drafts and Duty

Not, I hasten to add, the military sort. (“Conscription is slavery, and I don’t think that any people or nation has a right to save itself at the price of slavery for anyone, no matter what name it is called.” Robert Heinlein).

Since my present WIP is the first draft of what for want of a better title I am calling Tsifira, the difficulties of the first draft loom large in my mind.
So I thought I’d share with you the wisdom of a few other writers on the gnarliness that is the first draft.

I love this analogy from Shannon Hale: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

Sandcastle Competition

Sir Terry Pratchett has gems on both the first draft:
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
and on where the first draft stands in relation to the redrafting (at least for him):
“First draft: let it run. Turn all the knobs up to 11. Second draft: hell. Cut it down and cut it into shape. Third draft: comb its nose and blow its hair. I usually find that most of the book will have handed itself to me on that first draft.”

The writing/sculpture analogy is one that has been around for a while, but here is one of my favourite versions of it, from Anne Pillsworth: “The first draft is a huge pile of clay that you’ve laboriously heaped on your table, patting it into a rough shape as you go along. From the second draft onward, you’ll cut away chunks, add bits, pat and punch and pinch, until you finally have a gorgeous figure of, oh, Marcus Aurelius. Or a duck. But a damn fine duck.”

Marcus Aurelius Louvre MR561 n02Ducks - 1

Jennifer Egan puts her finger on a leading cause of first-draft writer’s block, one that I struggle greatly with:

“I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, clichéd writing, outright flailing around. Writing that doesn’t have a good voice or any voice. But then there will be good moments. It seems writer’s block is often a dislike of writing badly and waiting for writing better to happen.”

So what’s the solution? Just sit down and write it. (Just!) Dare to be awful – just get it down. Write it.
Easier to say than do, I know, but the only way to come out the other end is to keep plugging away at it.

And this is where the Duty element comes in. We do it because we must, not because we find this moment, just now, to be enjoyable.
As the good book says, they who go out weeping to sow the seed will return with shouts of joy, bringing the harvest with them. (Psalm 126.6).
Or as Steven Pressfield, somewhat less poetically puts it, “love being miserable”.

But this is not to say that the process will always and necessarily be an unpleasant one. As the Mother Superior in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil puts it: “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” Or as writers call it, flow. (More on that in a later post.)

Side note: who is better at loving the misery: Marines or nuns?

Nun getting arrested at five years of Iraq war protest

Not to suggest that either are masochistic, but when it comes to the All-Time Hacking-The-Nasty Tougher-Than-Thou contest, who’s got the edge? Those who face death (although quite possibly someone else’s), or those who die daily? Who would like to see that contest? Show of hands?

But the final word on Duty, Discipline and Devotion is brought to you by the letter D the late great Pavarotti: “People think I’m disciplined. It is not discipline. It is devotion. There is a great difference.”

Chocolate Zombies

Indeedy. The Chocolate Zombies arose (pardon) from a comment I received on my previous post about the problems posed by early mornings.

“So why have a morning time? This seems to be making it more difficult than it needs to be, almost perverse. Let’s say going to bed at 9:30 is a conscientious early night. So ‘stay up late’ then by making yourself a drink, digging out a small but scrummy little treat e.g. Lindt chocolate, and sitting down to write 9:30 to 10:30 seems more likely to be productive.
So you are that much more of a zombie in the morning, at least the writing happened!
If other activities would be curtailed by this then have other activities in the morning when higher functions are not feasible. Zombies can make a drink, toast the bread and satisfy other appetites. Higher functions happen when brain more likely to be engaged to body.
The chocy is to give you that little zap of energy and to get you over the hump of actually sitting down and doing it. Or is that against the rules?”

I foresaw problems with the method (see my reply for details) but in the interests of mad experimentation scientific thoroughness, I decided to attempt a Chocolate Zombie Experiment.

mad scientist

I chose an evening when I knew I had little to do the following morning (i.e. no lunch to make) in case extra sleep was required (extra to the early getting up I wouldn’t have to do because I’d stayed up late instead – following?)

Part One of the Experiment: Chocolate, began at 9:30 pm, as per spec.
I bade the Caped Gooseberry a fond good-night, consumed a morsel of tasty chocolate which a kind Providence had fated to my fridge, and started to write. (Full disclosure: I skipped the drink because I had just finished one, and the essence of a good late night is that the following sleep be undisturbed, i.e. Don’t Drink Too Much Before Going To Bed. Too much disclosure? I think so. Moving on.)

I decided to have a stab – perhaps more of a prolonged hack – at Tsifira, my current project-I-should-be-working-on. I wrote by hand – slower, but I find the ideas flow better that way – with a Faber Castell fountain pen and an exercise book stuffed with loose bits of paper on which I had written things I wanted to remember. (A sensible person might perhaps have consolidated all this into a practical array of notes at the back of the book, but what gives you the idea that I’m a sensible person?)

Overall, it went quite well.
I managed to write 5 1/2 A4 pages of double-spaced scrawl in one hour, which led to an unsurprising hand cramp and a surprising lack of eponymous inkiness of hand. Writing neatly is more compact but slower: ideas jostling like penguins on the ice-floe of the conscious mind tend to slip off and be eaten by the Sea Lions of Forgetfulness and the Polar Bears of Went-Down-A-Different-Leg-Of-The-Trousers-of-Time.

So far so good.
I toddled off to bed at half past ten, (interrupting, I fear, the repose of the Caped Gooseberry) and attempted to sleep.
It took a while. Too many penguins on the loose.

“…about a tenth of the cabin trunks were full of vivid, and often painful or uncomfortable memories of her past life; the other nine-tenths were full of penguins, which surprised her. Insofar as she recognised at all that she was dreaming, she realised that she must be exploring her own subconscious mind. She had heard it said that humans are supposed only to use about a tenth of their brains, and that no one was very clear what the other nine-tenths were for, but she had certainly never heard it suggested that they were used for storing penguins.” Douglas Adams – The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

Once I had got all my penguins safely stowed (including a few zombie penguins risen from the maw of the Sea Lions of Forgetfulness), all was well.

Until that dratted alarm went off, thus beginning Part Two of the Experiment: Zombie.

World Alarm Clock - Grove Passage, London

Really, is it beyond the bounds of human ingenuity to come up with a sound that is able to wake a sound sleeper but doesn’t induce that kind of psyche-stripping galvanic jump that leaves you quivering under the blankets as your bedmate nurses their bruises?

The usual madness to my method, I should point out, is to have two alarms – the first wakes me up, and the second tells me it’s time to get up.
This provides a useful quarter-hour interlude in which to reassemble my conscious brain, figure out which way is up, what day it is and why I should bother eventually getting out of bed, today of all days – or more often, fall asleep again (hence the importance of the second alarm).

This particular morning I was well asleep when the second alarm burst in, and consequently went through the whole galvanic thing again.
I staggered into my clothes and went the usual round of morning duties (minus the lunch), feeling fuggy-brained and not daring to attempt the toaster. I felt behind-hand all the way through, but to my surprise, managed to leave for work on time.

After a rough day at the office

Here is where I discovered the achilles heel of zombies. They are not built for speed. They lurch. My time allowance for getting to work is based on being able to sustain a reasonable clip (approx. 6km/h), and my body just wasn’t feeling it. I pushed it harder, and it responded with faint nausea and a cloying sense of deoxygenation. I slowed.

I made it to work a few minutes late, but fortunately not so late as to draw raised eyebrows from the Powers That Be. (To be that late, you need to take the bus.)

I felt dim and brainless for the better part of the morning (thus making it the worser part) and made a few stupid, though fortunately inconsequential, mistakes.

To be fair, some of the dimness may have been due to the fact that I didn’t have time in this shorter morning to make a cup of tea (all right, pedants, I had time to make, but not consume, which is after all the point). However, I had one as soon as I got to work and the brainlessness failed to recede, so perhaps not. (Braaaiiins…)

In summation: the Chocolate part of the Experiment was productive and enjoyable (apart from the hand cramp and the minor sleep issues) but the Zombie part was neither and I think this tends to outweigh the Chocolate part, at least when seen in the light of an ongoing routine.
Now and then, particularly if I don’t have work the following day, I may resurrect it again. (Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha! Pardon.)