About Me

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I still feel like a teenager on the inside, unfortunately my children do remind me how old I am!! I have lived for 20+ years as an Irish expat in The Netherlands. My favourite city here has to be Amsterdam.

Writing, reading, authentic living. It's all here at The Writing Process

Welcome to my blog. Let me start by telling you that I love writing. I love the sense of vitality it gives me. I love that it helps me to make sense of the world and to the people in it. I love that it helps me become wiser, more intuitive, empathic, and most of all autonomous.

All aspects - reading, writing and observing - are what make the process complete. The essence is storytelling, and learning about
life and yourself.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Home Run

It has been a long distance race, this novel of yours. In the early stages you took well defined, planned out steps, steps that would warm up the muscles but that would at the same time conserve energy and prepare you for the long haul.
In the first section of the novel the characters deepened and became autonomous and to some degree less familiar than you had expected. It followed that the plot too would not follow exactly the lines laid out in the synopsis.
And so, taking a deep breath you moved into the middle section of the story, where, though referring to the chapter breakdown, you allow yourself to be drawn along by the characters.
In this section of the book, though never losing control, you must relinquish the notion that you are omniscient, (in the context of this novel) and that not just possible readers, but you too, are on a journey of discovery. Fiction comes to life when the writer succumbs to this fact, and lets his heart speak. This is not to say that the pen (or the word processor) takes over completely; you the writer will use your instincts and your intelligence to guide the novel along, but there must be some degree of surrender to this organic process.
And then two thirds of the way into the novel you pause for reflection. The characters have grown and deepened; the plot has at particular stages meandered, at others charged along exhaustingly. You find yourself with a lot of loose ends to be tied up. If you find yourself at a loss, the original synopsis and chapter breakdown can be an enormous help now. You see, you had already taught yourself how to complete and conclude a novel in this original scheme and even though the plot may have diverged from your basic idea, you still have enough material to adapt or re-write. And even if you need to re-write the chapter breakdown for the last section, you know you can do it, because you did it before!
In my opinion it doesn’t matter what type of novel you have written, whether it be a thriller, a romance, a psychological drama. It doesn’t matter whether the plot, or the characterisation has ultimately taken the upper hand. In every case, a rounding off of all the elements and a satisfactory last paragraph, or sentence, preceding the words ‘The End’ will make or break the novel. Think back to novels you have read, even ones captivatingly written, ones that have drawn you in and kept you reading till dawn. If that last section, or worse still that last paragraph or sentence has disappointed, then it would have coloured your memory of the entire novel. So, reach a satisfactory conclusion, one that leaves no unwanted loose ends. I say, unwanted, because a deliberate loose end, one that forces you to continue thinking about the story after you have closed the book, is not a ‘loose end’ in the sense of a badly finished novel.
And how exactly do you reach that satisfactory conclusion? By the same means you used to get this far in the first place. Trusting the process, writing from the heart, and finally, listening to your body, because a truly complete conclusion will allow you to take a deep breath, smile broadly and let your shoulders sag a little for a job well done.
In a fast paced novel, one of high suspense and a lot of tension, it is generally a good idea to slow things down, give the reader an opportunity to digest all he has consumed. Soothe the reader, and gently ease him into saying goodbye to the story. In a slower novel, one with possibly a lot of intricate side steps and character motivations, the pace may pick up, turning the conclusion into a real home run, a last sprint or spurt of energy, where the elements just clash together. This type of conclusion hits you in the face, so to speak. I liken it to an Agatha Christie, (Murder on the Orient Express springs to mind). There are numerous elements to be worked out, described; several characters to be developed in depth. Much of the novel is used to do this. The pace is slow enough to give the reader ample opportunity to guess and to assume and inevitably to be wrong footed time and again. But when Agatha Christie decides it is time to lift the veil and draw the reader into the home stretch, the pieces fall in rapid succession, causing the reader to turn the pages furiously. And when the answer is revealed and the story concluded, there is the total satisfaction of knowing that this was the perfect solution, and that all the pieces fit perfectly together. It is then ‘obvious’!
14. Home Run
Arundhati Roy, in The God of Small Things also uses a large part of her novel to lay the ground for her characters and her plot. If it hadn’t been for the sheer wonderment of her writing style and use of vocabulary I might not have stuck with this novel at all. But having waded through this first section, I was delighted to have stuck it out, because the second and third sections of this story are riveting. It is then obvious that every description and every event were necessary to the fulfilling of this novel. Not a word too much. But it is certainly a risk and takes a lot of courage on the part of the writer to pace a novel this way because you are in danger of losing the reader. It takes great skill, and a hypnotic use of language to hold a reader in what might otherwise be just a laborious book.
In contrast, I recently read Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. This initially clever book has us intrigued even before we read the first chapter, as Dave Eggers has slyly used the acknowledgements and foreword to illustrate his ability to break the rules and intrigue us. My respect for his daring lasted until about chapter 5, at which point I had the dreaded suspicion that, despite his clever entree, he really had no idea what he wanted to do with this novel. It was rapidly turning into a badly planned, not very profound, chronicle of his life immediately after the death of his parents, and his parenting of his younger brother. The promise he had shown by breaking a few rules initially, fell into superficiality. Dave Eggers was just not ready to dig deep enough to hold my interest. His characterisation (even though he wrote about real people) was marginal and two dimensional, and by the time he actually visits his parents graves and sheds a tear, I find myself saying ‘so what’. I cannot even remember exactly how he concluded this novel, and clearly any conclusion was not enough to save this novel, that was potentially a work of staggering genius, but turned out to be heartbreakingly disappointing.
Tracy Chevalier’s ‘Falling Angels’ on the other hand, is not particularly fast-paced, but it is set in a time of great social change in England, and this Chevalier uses to her full advantage. Her characters are well thought out, and fit perfectly into the situation of two royal deaths and the suffragette movement in England. I think the consistency of these different elements woven into a novel are underestimated. In Falling Angels we take it for granted because it is so well done. But if it were badly done, we would feel it immediately and come away from the novel feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Chevalier does what everyone wants to do: she makes it all seem easy. Her plot flows; the pace accelerating and decelerating exactly when it must. And the characters evolve and deepen without us even really noticing it. The conclusion is gentle, soothing, satisfying and completely in keeping with the calibre of the novel.
Our aim is to write just such a novel. One where the ending is like a deep, languorous breath. Now, as a final thought, and one I will ponder for the next article: how do you say goodbye, emotionally put it to bed, and distance yourself enough to critically examine the manuscript?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Now, Discover your strengths

How many of us, well into our careers, still live with the mistaken idea that the purpose of most of our activities is to work on those weaknesses and somehow turn them into strengths? I would venture to say, the majority of us, certainly those of us who grew up with post war parents who themselves believed that success in working life and achievement can be measured by the extent to which his has been accomplished.
In the meantime, strengths, natural aptitudes, and in most cases the activities that enhance our well being are almost ignored, simply because so much energy goes into working on those weaknesses.
When put this simply, none of us should be surprised at the level of unhappiness sustained by a lot of people in their jobs.
So, in the face of this general discontent, Marcus Buckingham comes along to shake us up and wake us up. With the help of his, dare I say it, easy to understand theory, we can turn our professional and personal lives around.
What you need to do, is rediscover the strengths that are an integral part of your own personality, and by strengths he means, not only the things you excel at but that also give a sense of satisfaction and contentment. Then to increase well being it is essential to take these discoveries seriously and ensure they can be put to use to either help you choose a new career path or to improve your situation in your current job.
Bosses, he says, must be aware of the natural strengths of employees and work on finding ways of utilising these instead of regularly planning training programmes to help them identify weaknesses that subsequently should be worked on to transform them into strengths because that just isn’t about to happen. It takes much more energy and investment to work on weaknesses than it does to enhance strengths.
Simple, yet it took Marcus Buckingham to point it out. A definite eye opener.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Let's get personal


Excavation begins at Forty. It may take a decade before you reap the benefits.

I entered my forties as a single mom of two children in primary school. I entered my forties before Marcus Buckingham had written his life changing books on strengths and weaknesses. I had grown up in a society where, as he so aptly explains, parents are geared to honing in on the lesser grades on a child’s report card, in order to encourage the child to work hard at these to bring them up to scratch. It was a society where strengths were taken for granted, even ignored. Natural talents, because they came naturally, faded to the background while parents and teachers patted themselves on the back every time a child managed, however unhappily or stressfully, to transform a four on a report card into a five.
But not only was this how society was when I was growing up. It was even more so within the family where I grew up. My father believed wholeheartedly in gearing yourself to be good in areas that would insure you had a decent career later. You can be good at almost anything, if you put your mind to it, was his motto, and in my case he was, to some extent, right. I had a natural aptitude for learning in general, and was capable of gaining reasonable grades for most subjects. Not that I was happy all the time. By the time I had reached my final years at secondary school, and having changed had to change my particular combination of subjects several times, as we moved from place to place to accommodate my father’s career (also a normal course of events back then), motivating myself to study at all was an enormous chore. At eleven, when I entered grammar school, I still had subjects like Music and Art and Cooking on my syllabus, as well as English and French and Maths. I played piano, violin and sang in the school choir. At fifteen and three schools later, I was unenthusiastically taking Latin and Gaelic to mention but a couple of subjects that I loathed.
From there to university to study Commerce (business studies). Without going into too much detail, let’s say I scraped together enough points to graduate, but with no idea what I was supposed to do next.
And for the next almost twenty years I see-sawed between working, motherhood and a writing career that though spiritually fulfilling did not exactly put food on the table. Well, it didn’t matter anyway, seeing as I was married to a high achiever, who didn’t seem all too bothered about my seeming lack of success.
But on the eve of my fortieth birthday the excavation was kick-started into gear when my marriage failed and reality hit. Here I was, a highly educated, intelligent woman, who, despite her college degree, had no idea how to merge all her skills and find a job that was worthy of her education but one that would allow her creativity and thirst for knowledge to shine through. And remember, I was brought up to believe that achievement was all down to willpower, not to natural aptitude. My willpower which is both a blessing and a curse, led me to dust the cobwebs off my business degree and get myself back out there seriously, to earn a living. Of course, with that in mind, I didn’t even consider my creative side. Not for a moment did I think I ought to integrate it into my working life. Somehow, what I did at the work place and what I did because I enjoyed it and because it gave me a sense of completeness, were two totally separate issues.
So, out came the business graduate, albeit one with far too little experience for her years. And so began a decade of catching up, and frustration, and at times a sense of despair that I was slowly losing myself. I was good at what I did, of course. But I could be good at so many tasks, and the actual learning curve was exciting, but short lived. I felt a very brief sense of achievement that I had mastered some task or other, but continuing to carry out that task, day after day, week after week, was soul destroying. Several of these peaks and valleys later, it became clear to me that switching companies was not the solution, since it would probably be a case of ‘same old same old’ and so I opted to stay where I was and convince myself that the pay-check and the stability I offered my children was enough.
I read book after book on spirituality and self realisation but somehow did not know how to apply it to myself. I spun round and round in ever decreasing circles, feeling more and more tired at work and becoming increasingly desperate to fulfil myself in the few hours between coming home and going to bed. Writing in such a fatigued state became almost impossible, so I took up painting which at least kept me sane.
Until at forty five the opportunity to start merging my two separate selves started to present itself. Slowly but surely I distanced myself from the financial, analytical side of business and started to use my creative talents too. My natural aptitude for texts and languages was put to use as my employer expanded world wide and needed a more international profile; my eye for design was utilised for a more modern website and both of these were exactly what was needed to become the company DTPer, web localiser and magazine editor.
Yet it would take another couple of years before I took these talents seriously. In fact, when I thought about taking them seriously, the cold hand of fear gripped me, probably because it would entail me going against how I had been raised.
It would take a downsizing of the company and my imminent redundancy for me to take the plunge and start my own business. Not as someone with expertise in finance, but as a creative DTPer and translator. My business skills and intelligence are not wasted, since they will help me structure the business effectively, but they are not the core of what I do. The activities at the centre of my company and the services on offer, are my love of language and the pleasure I get from giving new and existing companies, however small, the support they need in presenting themselves to an international market. I realise that effective communication is my strength and being able to share my own experiences to give someone else a leg up is who I am.
It only took me fifty years to get there. I got there with the help of Marcus Buckingham, Huub van Zwieten, and other motivation gurus. But there had been many other signs and oracles earlier in my excavation process that encompassed the entire decade of my forties; it just took me that long to listen and to shake off the deeply embedded preconceptions that I had internalised as a child and teenager. What was right for my father and his post war generation, is luckily being re-examined and revised for today’s society. We have made a shift in perspective, and we are at a much higher level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It isn’t just about adequate survival in the jungle, it is about self realisation and, dare I say it, spiritual fulfilment too.
I take comfort from the fact that I am obviously not the only one to be confronted in this way. If I were, then there would be no need for these books and revelations. And, to conclude, better late than never.