Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Am I crazy?

Until very recently, it looked as if my now yearly pilgrimage to West Wing Land DC was not going to happen in 2011. I consoled myself with thoughts of going for the cherry blossom festival instead, and happy if unfounded hopes of being accepted by American University this year and soon getting to live there full time. 

I consoled myself too with the prospect of NaNoWriMo: every year, tens of thousands of writers worldwide indulge in (inter)National Novel Writing Month, the aim being to crank out a 50,000 word first draft in the space of a month. For the last two years, I've been on holiday and in the midst of another novel in November. Not this year. Maybe this was the year to give it a go.

When it turned out I could go to DC after all, I was not, initially, as excited as I would have expected to be. This concerned me - was it some kind of sign? It took me a little while to realise that I was, in fact, disappointed to be missing out on another NaNoWriMo. 

And then it dawned on me: why are travelling and NaNo mutually exclusive? Particularly when my next novel, like my first, is going to be a doomed love story set in DC, and DC is where I am going? 

This may be the best, or the worst, idea that I've ever had. But I've got a week in Washington this time, and I've taken the obligatory photos, done the obligatory tours, stood in the street where Josh threw snowballs at Donna's window (though I still don't know which house number it was - anyone?). I have time, in other words, to set aside a couple of hours a day to sit in a coffee shop and scribble in my notebooks. I also have plane journeys and train journeys. 

And one of the best things about NaNo is its communalness (this is where I wish, not for the first time today, that there was a decent English translation of the word convivialité). People meet in cafés and bookshops and write together. Not much in Belgium - and the ones that do seem to be Dutch-speaking. This is one aspect where being in the US will work for me. Maybe. 

NaNoWriMo requires stringent self-discipline, and I hesitate to be unrealistically harsh on myself and force myself to write 1,667 words a day on holiday - particularly in the 36 hours I have in Philadelphia and the four days I have in LA. But I have signed up to those NaNo regions just in case. The write-ins may actually be just the nudge that I need to keep me going at least every other day. And if I get ahead while I am in DC, I may not need to be too stringent. 

By the time I get back from the US, I should have 25,000 words of a novel written - perhaps more, because I know from experience that jetlag makes me useless for a good few days after I get back (and to make it more complicated still, I then have a trip to the UK for a wedding.) I have no idea if it's going to work. But I'm certainly going to give it a try. I don't want to wait another year. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

Quirky things about Belgium: the Atoma notebook

Searching the internet for a picture to illustrate my next blogpost on essential tools for language learning, I discovered something I don't think I ever knew: the Atoma notebook is Belgian.

Not only that, but it seems difficult to purchase in other countries. Their website lists just one outlet in the UK; they are all but absent from Amazon.

I should have known this, of course. Maybe, on some level, I did once know. When I moved from Brussels to the UK in 1991, it was long before the days of Paperchase and I longed for the superior stationery of the continent. I don't know if Atoma notebooks were one of the things I'd missed. I hadn't been allowed them much, anyway, because they were expensive. And with good reason.

Here, they're everywhere. My little local supermarket has a stack of them every rentrée and sells them on a 3 for 2 deal. You can buy them in every shape and size, and they are wonderful. 

For the uninitiated, what makes these notebooks so great is that you can rip out the pages and then replace them elsewhere in the same notebook, or even a different one, since their binding is identical across their range. This makes them a dream for those afflicted with OCD tendencies. It also makes them a dream for the perennially disorganised (with whom I have much more sympathy): you don't have to worry which notebook to take with you, just grab one, and you can play with the pages later. 

You can buy dividers, too, and split your "learning Italian" notebook into a section for vocab, a section for grammar, and that kind of thing. They sell address books, too - no more running out of space under S, you can just steal a page from the Z section. Or how about a writer's journal? Jot down any idea, overheard dialogue, or descriptive detail on any page: no more worrying about whether it's in the right section, because that is easily fixed afterwards.

So, there you go. The Atoma notebook: just one of the things that makes this little country great. 

Monday, 10 October 2011

On the birthday of a talented actor

I don't know if Bradley Whitford seeks the limelight. If having legions of twitter followers is any indication of such desires, it would appear he does not.

But, you say. Hang on. Who chooses to be an actor if they don't have, somewhere inside them, this desire to be looked at, respected, recognised, admired, worshipped? Well, leaving aside the question of whether we all, to some extent, want those things, perhaps there are some who love acting for its own sake, for the sake of the art; perhaps all the baggage and the glitz that come with Hollywood is, to those people, incidental.

Those are the people with talent, or perhaps these are the people who, because of their devotion to their art, have studied and practised and read and observed: perhaps they are skilled, rather than talented. It is not the accident of birth that has made them what the are, but rather discipline, hard work, and determination.

The concept of talent is comforting to the rest of us: if some people have it, and I don't, well that's that, my bad luck. This mindset does not demand of me that I work hard, sacrifice sleep and time and money and sometimes relationships. I can leave that to the talented people. Who probably don't need to do that anyway, since they have it naturally. Right?

And so talent becomes revered, because it is almost magical. It is mysterious, after all: no one knows why some people have it and some don't.

Bradley Whitford may or may not be talented. What? I can hear the outcry from here. How could he not be talented? Have you not seen The West Wing? Do you not know that he won an Emmy or a stunning performance of a PTSD-afflicted Josh Lyman? Of course I know. And - unlike some Emmys, which are motivated by plenty of other factors beside the quality of acting, viz Best Supporting Actress, 2004) - his was wholly merited.

But here's what I also know: he studied for four years at Juilliard, where the hours are incredibly demanding - 8 am to 11 pm most days - and where they don't let even let you perform in public until your fourth year. You are not, in that time, seeking acclaim or pursuing celebrity. You are honing your art for the love of it. You are, often unglamorously, often exhaustedly, putting in a substantial proportion of those 10,000 hours widely believed to be required for becoming an expert at something.

Ah, you say. But 750 to 1,000 people apply to Juilliard each year, and they only take twenty. So there must have been something about Bradley. And you'd be right.  But he had, importantly, already fallen in love with his art. He wanted to act more than he wanted to be an actor. He had fallen in love with the process, and the results would follow. He had found joy in the journey itself. Perhaps that's why he does not appear to be lured by the trappings of fame.

Is he talented? Probably. I want to say, definitely. Because I too am wowed by talent. But I'm also wowed by his devotion to his art. And I think you should be, too.

Fall in love with the process and the results will follow. You’ve got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. You’ve got to want to do whatever you want to do more than you want to be whatever you want to be, want to write more than you want to be a writer, want to heal more than you want to be a doctor, want to teach more than you want to be a teacher, want to serve more than you want to be a politician. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.

- Bradley Whitford

Friday, 7 October 2011

A cure for writer's block?

I know I (foolishly) claimed a while back that I don't suffer from writer's block. Turns out that I do. Only mine is not a case of sitting down and having nothing to write. I use writing prompts to get going and take it from there.

Mine is an odd internal resistance to writing. It's finding excuse after excuse, day after day, for not putting in the few minutes I promised myself I would. I don't know why I have been battling this. (Okay, not so much battling as capitulating.)

Only it turns out that I do know why - that there are lot of reasons, from being discouraged by my lack of success to being distracted by my wonderful but ubiquitous iPad and its many wonderful apps.

Actually, I think I knew about those, but I unearthed plenty more yesterday: it just so happens that I was on the chapter of The Five Minute Writer which deals with the "I am not writing because..." syndrome. You write down your reasons, then you write down positive statements to counter them. Things like, "I may not have been published yet, but plenty of people have enjoyed my work, including one or two agents." (Cheesier things were, in fact, suggested, but I didn't quite have the stomach for them.)

It sounds like a load of nonsense, doesn't it? The idea that this should somehow get me writing again? I only really did the exercise to assuage my guilt at having let yet another day go by without my daily quota.

And yet, today, I have found within myself the self- discipline to switch off the internet on my main computer while I wrote, and then agai later while I watched the West Wing and then wrote. (I have, in fact not checked Facebook for, oh, three hours now.) And lo, the West Wing inspired me again. This morning, I did a writing prompt and continued until after the timer had gone off. This evening I typed up almost 3,000 words and now I only have 12,000 to go till I can resubmit to the agent who liked me but wanted a longer book. Most of that is not new writing. But the inner resistance has gone. I want to write again. And now I feel like me again. And mightily relieved.

Now, it could be completely unrelated to the exercise I did yesterday. After all, as all West Wing fans are aware, "post hoc ergo propter hoc" (after it, therefore because of it) is hardly ever true. But hardly ever is not the same as never.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Watching Castle

I've finished Gilmore Girls, I'm in danger of overdosing on Friends, and I am, as always, rewatching The West Wing but only at weekends and on writing days.

So I've given in. After months of being told I really ought to watch Castle, I tried the pilot tonight.

Here's why I liked it:

The undeniable attractiveness of Nathan Fillion. (Although, I can't help thinking, perhaps predictably, that Bradley Whitford would have made a great Castle.)
The feistiness and intelligence of Kate Beckett.
The quirkiness of the secondary characters - I liked that there is a mum, and a daughter. It makes characters more rounded, somehow, when you see them interact with other people in their lives, in particular people of different generations.
The New York setting, because, you know, I can say "I've been there" every few minutes.

And, of course, the premise of the whole thing: he's a writer. He says things I want to quote, like "there's always a story" or "I never did much like reality". His motivation for doing almost everything is finding a new plot. He has writer friends who help him deepen his storyline. He gives a fan a signed advance copy of his next book. He looks right into people because he wants to find the story.

These are all things to which I can relate. Well, not the advance copy. Not yet. But I made a note to self: I can send Brad and Janel copies of Inevitable before it hits the shops, thus gaining valuable months.

Anyway, back to Richard Castle. I like him. A lot. Despite his arrogance. Or maybe because of it, a little bit. Maybe it's (still) the Josh Lyman thing.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

3BT: work, work, work

1. An old student of mine from London who recently returned for more French lessons via Skype never fails to make me laugh with his very British dry wit. "Well," he reponds when I apologise for the meanness of one particular exercise, "you've got to have your fun."

2. Someone buys my book. (I know, I know, but it'll be a while before the novelty wears off.)

3. My first English conversation class goes really well. I set them a pair exercise and they chat away. They're enthusiastic and have a good level of English and plenty to talk about.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad