The importance of research

As I pack for a family trip to Europe, part of me is planning how to fit some research for my book into the trip. On my last visit, I went to some of the towns and cities my father had lived in or visited. This visit, I would like to delve further into my family’s history and some of the history and strategies of WW2.

We are spending a few days in Latvia, where I will show my sons the estate which used to belong to my father’s family. I hope to discover stories about the family, anecdotes or remembrances, although I doubt there is anyone still alive who would remember them.

We will also stay a few days in Berlin, where I hope to learn more about division and unit movements during WW2. I have emailed an organisation which I am optimistic can assist me with my research. Even if they cannot help, I will continue to look for those who can.

I find research fascinating. I often get sidetracked when hunting down facts, only to discover myself lost in a completely different area. Although there are writers who have been quoted as saying that research is not writing, I tend to agree with Leon Uris who said, “Research to me is as important or more important than the writing. It is the foundation upon which the book is built.”

This is very true of the book I am presently rewriting. If I hadn’t researched the incidents which prompted Latvia’s fight for independence, the events leading up to WW2, the conditions of prisoner of war camps, and the destruction and despair of the German people after their surrender, I would never have been able to write about my father and his experiences. The research in this case has truly been the foundation of my work. Without it I would have been left with disjointed notes in my father’s hand, letters from a young girl he met during the war, letters from my parents to each other and memories of the rather fraught relationship between me and my father. It wouldn’t have been enough.

Over the next few weeks I hope to fill in the remaining gaps in the research I have already completed. Put the cement between the bricks, so to speak. What better way to do it than to travel to where my book began. In the words of Michael Scott, “The research. It is always the best part of writing. And, of course, it is the great excuse to travel.”

#Anthology17

Writing is a solitary and often lonely. Even if you set your laptop up on the corner table of a busy café, you are most likely still writing alone. If you are like me, you are probably sitting alone in front of your computer, in your pyjamas. So, it is a wonderful moment when you find a group of likeminded writers who you can bounce ideas off and meet, in real life, every now and again.

I was lucky enough to find just such a group when I stumbled across Women Who Write, Melbourne. With a Facebook membership of over 500 fabulous women, who write in a variety of genres, this group is one of the most supportive I have come across. I felt welcome from the first time I joined one of their meetings. This group of women is happy to answer questions, critique writing and make suggestions and I have never heard any negative or derisive comments.

This year Women Who Write decided to put together and publish their first anthology of short stories and poetry. The call went out and I submitted a story which I felt suited the theme of “New Beginnings”. I was so excited when my story was selected.

Compiling, editing, publishing and marketing a book does not come easily, nor is it an inexpensive process. So, a crowd funding campaign has been launched. You can find it here: https://pozible.com/project/women-who-write-anthology The monies pledged will help us pay for professional editing, graphic design, production costs, printing of 170 copies of the anthology and our book launch.

If you like to read, if you enjoy discovering new authors, if you have enjoyed my blog posts, or if you simply would like to donate a few dollars to a help us out, please do so. Your contribution will be appreciated, not only by the twenty authors included in this, our first anthology, but also by all of the members of Women Who Write, Melbourne.

Everybody has a story to tell, but…

If you think of it, our lives are built on stories. Our stories begin with our birth, our mothers relate tales of various levels of pain in labour; often our details are written down or at least discussed with family and friends, our length, weight, the colour of our eyes, how we fed, how we slept. Our stories continue as we grow, our first tooth, first word, first step, first day at school.

Our stories also rest on the building blocks of our ancestor’s stories. If our great great great grandparents hadn’t done this, or moved here, or worked in this job or the other, we might not exist. For example, if my father had immigrated to Canada as he had originally planned, instead of America where he ended up, I might not exist. If the Russian Revolution hadn’t taken place, my grandparents would have stayed in Russia and I probably would never have been born.

Similarly, our future is a product of our stories. Our decisions in life form the pathways for our future; what we study, the jobs we accept, the moral choices we make, all construct our future stories.

Most of us want to share or tell or write our stories. We firmly believe our stories will be interesting enough for everyone to hear. As a writer, I would love to know my stories are so fascinating that they will draw in a large audience. There are plenty of writers in the world whose stories do just this; JK Rowling, Stephen King, John Grisham, Dan Brown, to name a few. Their stories are popular, their books sell and are often turned into movies or television series. I can only dream of ever being as admired.

But here’s the catch, although we all have stories to tell, not everyone wants to hear them. Our family and friends might be interested in our birth and childhood, although I doubt repeated tales about how your mother barely made it through labour or how you were clever enough to walk early, would manage to hold your audience for very long. But I somehow doubt the rest of the world would care.

It is the same for other stories. Take the memoir I’m struggling to finish which deals with the rather fraught relationship I had with my father. I hope my sons will be keen to read about their grandfather, some of my friends will no doubt want to hear my story, there might even be others out there who have had similar issues with their parents who will pick up my book; but I doubt my story will ever make it to a best sellers list. I can always hope, but I also must be a realist. Yet I often hear of writers who complain about the lack of readers or interest in their story. Not everyone will be eager to read about the disease you fought, your efforts to rise above situations, your battles with racism, sexism, ageism, or your relationships. There is not likely to be a huge audience for yet another take on child wizards, supernatural horror or quests for the holy grail, especially if these stories are badly disguised copies. This is just how it is.

If you feel your story must be told or written, then please tell it or write it. A story which begs to be told or written, is an important story. But don’t expect anyone else to be interested. Write it for yourself. Because you are not only the writer of your story, you are also its most valuable reader.

 

Time, what we want most

Yesterday it dawned on me that, if I’m lucky and if my family history is anything to go by, I have perhaps another 30 years on this planet; if I’m not lucky, I could die tomorrow… or today. Thirty years to do all the things I would like to do. It is not a huge amount of time.

It is said that there are those who find the time to do the things they want to do, and those who make excuses for failing to find the time. From today, I’m planning on being one of the former. If I can find a way to squeeze a little bit more into my day, I will. Without realising it, I’ve already started. All those books I’ve been meaning to read forever – I’ve started to download them to my Kindle and the time I spend on trams, trains and buses, going to and from work, is now spent reading. Learning German and Russian has been on top of my list for a very long time; downloading Duolingo to my phone means I can spend twenty minutes or so each day learning vocabulary and simple phrases.

However, I’ve also decided that the short time I have left is better spent doing things which excite me, or teach me, or enthuse me; rather than the things which are merely dull or repetitive. Of course, I still must work but I can also ensure that part of each day is spent in an activity which I enjoy. It might be something as minor as reading a book, or researching a subject which interests me or cooking some new recipe; or it could be as exciting as travelling to a new destination, going to a show, or enjoying the company of friends. Instead of a bucket list, I’m going to think of this as my daily list.

Today, I’m off to attend several events at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I selected each of these events as they pertain either to my writing, or my family or both. I’m looking forward to learning new things and considering old knowledge from a new perspective. I’m looking forward to the buzz of a festival, the friends I’ll catch up with and the chance to meet people who are as interested in writing as I am.

And tomorrow… I will be reading new books and enjoying my weekly Kundalini yoga session. I will also start planning for each of my future daily lists. Suddenly, I’m feeling energised.

In the words of William Penn, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” I hope I begin to use my remaining time well.

The Right Time to Write

This weekend I discovered what I believe is my optimum time of day to write. I didn’t plan this discovery, it was totally accidental.

I’m a creature of habit and routine. I wake up and practice a morning meditation. Then I perform a few exercises while still in bed. My meditation practice began as a way to try to reduce stress and has become a ritual I look forward to. I started the exercises to alleviate a bout of sciatica and have continued them in the hope of preventing a return.

Yesterday, I finished my routine and, for some unknown reason, decided to turn on my computer. I was still in pajamas, I hadn’t eaten breakfast. Lately my computer has had a mind of its own, sometimes turning on immediately, sometimes taking a rather long time to wake up. Yesterday it sprang into action immediately.

Taking this as a portent of good things to come, I opened the manuscript I have been working on for over five years. The major rewriting I’m undertaking started over a year ago and I was floundering in the middle of chapter two. I kid you not.

So, there I was still in pajamas, with a belly beginning to complain from lack of sustenance, and my fingers flew over the keyboard. Within an hour I’d completed the second chapter. Another hour saw me half way through the third. The third hour I spent reading and revising what I’d written. Finally, I showered and cooked breakfast. I felt amazing. And not once had I checked my emails or surfed the net looking for inspiration or distraction.

This morning I tried the same routine again, with the same results. The challenge for me will be trying to include some time for writing on work days. Unless I decide to limit writing time to weekends. Trial and error might just be the way to go.

I’ve discovered a few other writers who practice their craft in the early mornings. Ernest Hemingway was one, “When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Don DeLillo also began the day writing, “I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running.” Haruki Murakami has a repetitive writing routine, “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4am and work for five or six hours.” William Gibson, Maya Angelou and Anaϊs Nin were all morning writers. It looks as if I am in good company. I can only hope some of their brilliance will rub off on me just from adopting their routine.

What time of day do you write?

Stillness

In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside you. Deepak Chopra

I’m learning to be still. It isn’t easy for me. I’m the sort of person who tries to multi-task, who leaps from one thing to another, perhaps not physically but almost always mentally. I will begin writing and rewriting my manuscript, or reading or sorting through daily tasks such as paying bills and my mind will wander, skipping to the next chapter or book or job until I can no longer concentrate on what I’m doing. Open a computer in front of me and I will leap from website to website, reading a bit here and a bit there. I might begin to sort the laundry and become distracted by cleaning out my wardrobe, or organizing my jewellery. I am rarely without noise in my life. At home I have the television on whether I’m watching it or not. Or I turn on music, or listen to podcasts. Going to work there is the noise of the traffic. At work the office hums with voices and telephones.

So, at the beginning of the year, I decided it was time to learn the skill of stillness. And it is a skill. For someone who has always been on the move, flitting from one thing to another, surrounded by sound, stillness and silence is an effort.

For nearly a year I have begun every day by meditating. On work day mornings I have little time, so my meditation is short, a mere five minutes. On weekends I always double that, sometimes even triple it. I have a meditation app on my phone with a timer. It has several recorded meditations but I prefer to set the timer and do it myself. For the last few weeks, I have been working through a self-guided chakra meditation each morning.

Travelling to work by public transport gives me the opportunity to catch up on my reading. As it is not possible to change books or pick up other tasks on a tram or train, I have to focus on what I’m reading. Sometimes I read for information; self-help books or books which contain research for my writing, and sometimes I read for pleasure; mostly crime novels. I love this time, alone among others, lost in stories. Around me there might be noise, but within me there is stillness.

In the evenings, I’ve resisted the urge to turn on the television or the computer as soon as I walk in the door. I try to spend some time unwinding, changing into more comfortable clothes, shaking the work of the day from my shoulders. Often I will pause to watch the world pass by my window.

I find cooking very relaxing. Preparing the evening meal, chopping fresh vegetables, and then bringing flavours together to create something tasty is a way for me to de-stress. I still haven’t worked out how to make the decision of what to cook less stressful!

Right now the world around us is chaotic and often beyond comprehension. I hope that by learning to be still, I will become more resilient and less prone to stress.

Childhood Memories

“Because memories fall apart too. And then you’re left with nothing, left not even with a ghost but with its shadow.” John Green

Part of the rewriting process I’m going through with my manuscript includes writing at least three new chapters, which I must fill with childhood memories of my father, my family and growing up.

The problem is I don’t have very many memories.

Of course, I have a few memories, scattered fragments of childhood, tattered remnants of teenage years. Sometimes they are a sequence of pictures, like a grainy slideshow which jumps about on the screen. More often each memory is a single image without any movement, without a soundtrack. Sometimes I even doubt these memories, thinking that perhaps I have stolen them from someone else. Or maybe my parents gave me these images with their words, handed them to me to tend to as my own. I just don’t know.

My very first memory is of me as a three-year-old, sitting on the floor in front of a black and white television set watching the assassination of John F Kennedy over and over again. In this memory, there is no room around me, although I know I was in my grandparent’s living room as we did not own a television. If you can imagine a black and white photograph of a very young girl sitting cross legged on the floor of a living room in an apartment, on a wooden floor covered by a Persian rug, watching an old black and white television which was in a white walled corner; and you take that photograph and gently tear around the girl and the television, ripping away the rest of the room with its sofa, armchairs, coffee table and bookshelves, you would be left with my memory.

A couple of years ago I returned to another apartment we used to live in. I hoped that standing in the rooms where I spent some of the years of my childhood would bring back a few more memories. But there was nothing. Although it was familiar to me and my bedroom looked much smaller than I thought it would have been.

I’ve heard certain smells can trigger memory but I haven’t had the fortune to experience it. The more I try to remember, the less comes to mind. And it isn’t just childhood. I can’t remember much of my teenage years either, nor can I remember the significant milestones my babies went through, as can most other mothers.

A few people have suggested I see a hypnotist to see if they can uncover my memories for me. It’s something I’m seriously considering. In the meantime, I hope starting to write about the few memories I have will perhaps help me to remember more of them.

Catalyst

For all of you writers out there, what is your catalyst for writing a book, an article, a blog post? Do you know what sparks your yearning to put thoughts on paper? Can you remember the first time you thought you were on the right path?

As mentioned in my last blog post, the catalyst which prompted me to pound furiously at my keyboard was the anger I felt toward my father and, to a lesser degree, my mother. When I walked into my father’s home after his death, I was faced with the enormous task of clearing the house of everything stored in it so that it could be put on the market. I had no option as, despite telling me in previous conversations, that he had left me the house in his will, my father had not. So, our family home had to be sold in order to break up his estate into the different percentages he had designated in his will. I also had limited time in which to complete my task. We had lived on opposite sides of the country, so I did not have the leisure of being able to clear bits and pieces after work or on the weekends. I took a month of leave from work, four weeks in which to sort out a lifetime of hoarding as well as decide what to do with it.

I am an only child. Without my three sons and the generosity of one of my parents’ neighbours, it would have been almost impossible to complete what I had to do in the given timeframe.

Four weeks is not a huge amount of time in which to sort through a lifetime of collecting, organise a funeral, interview real estate agents, oversee the sale of a house while dealing with grief and anger and regret. I’m certain I threw out, gave away or sold items which I should have kept. I know I didn’t spend enough time holding the things my parents found precious enough to keep. Of course, I regret this, but I can’t let myself constantly dwell on it.

I was still angry with my father, who had had nearly thirty years of retirement to sort out his mess, when I discovered letters which had been written to my father during WWII. They were in German so, each night in bed, just before dropping into an exhausted sleep, I used Google translate to interpret their meaning. They were love letters, written by a young girl in what would become the Eastern Zone, to my father, who was at the time a young Lieutenant in the German army. These letters would spur me to continue my writing long after my anger had dissipated. I would spend months and years having them professionally translated, while trying to find out what happened to the young girl. And I still wonder if she kept the letters my father wrote to her.

Later I discovered a notebook in which my father had jotted down a timeline of his life and that began a whole new tangent for my research.

 

In Hindsight

If I had known the effort which is required to rewrite my manuscript, would I have written it in the first place? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that my initial effort took me four years. I have no doubt it will take me just as long to rewrite.

It isn’t simply a matter of changing the words in a sentence or deleting a paragraph or two. The editor I gave my manuscript to has suggested a total overhaul. I must find new words to fill up at least three chapters. Huge chunks of what I have already written will be torn out and thrown away. If we were talking about a home renovation, it would be the equivalent of gutting the place, taking down walls and redoing the floor plan.

When I began this manuscript, a memoir about my father and our relationship, I was filled with anger at him and at the mess he had left me to clean up when he died. It was so easy to pour my emotions onto the page. Then I started to become curious about documents and letters I found when clearing out his house. But now the anger has dissipated and although I am still trying to satisfy my curiousity, I don’t have the same intensity.

So how do I keep my writing and rewriting on track? I have already changed my weekly routine to free up my weekends for writing. I no longer spend my Sunday shopping and cooking for the week, I now do that in fits and bursts after work. I leave the television off and keep logged out of Facebook and Twitter. I limit Google to research. Despite my efforts I am still only on Chapter two.

But, how do I maintain the enthusiasm I once had for my memoir? This is not easy for me. I already know the ending. But I have found reading books with similar stories helps. And I still get excited if I discover the answer to one of the puzzles my father left behind.

Apparently, Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” At the moment, I feel as if I’ve been given a mountain of rock to sculpt with nothing but a small chisel to use.

Memory and Music

Music invokes memories. I know this from experience. Stairway to Heaven will forever transport me to my teenage years, lying in bed with the cassette player on the floor playing Led Zeppelin over and over again. Three Times a Lady takes me onto a dimly lit dance floor and into the arms of a long-forgotten love. Anthems such as Throw Your Arms Around Me and Working Class Man remind me of nights spent with friends at one pub or another, listening to cover bands and singing along very badly, with drunken abandonment.

At last Friday Night at the NGV, as part of the Van Gogh Four Seasons exhibition, the Blackeyed Susans played while the audience of mostly over 40s, swayed and bobbed and head banged their way through the songs. The music didn’t summon any memories for me as, at the peak of their success in the 90s, I was grooving to the sounds of the Wiggles and Don Spencer, along with my three sons. But it was obvious that most of the people at the National Gallery of Victoria that night were reliving their youth through the tunes being played. There were even groupies, if you can call them that; women dressed in clothes more reminiscent of their teens but in larger sizes, pushing through the crowd to reach the front of the stage and dancing in a way which they thought provocative.

All around me the grey haired, both men and women, forgot their daily worries, their slightly too much weight around the middle, their relationship problems, the work they hated, their mortgages and credit card debts and personal loans. The music soared over them, around them and through them, carrying them back in time to moments which were perhaps less fraught with difficulties, less responsible and a tad more fun.

Of course, music can also remind you of sad times. Marianne Faithfull’s The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, is my number one go to song whenever I’m feeling low. I can always listen to Tupac’s Until the End of Time, which triggers memories of randomly writing poetry full of angst, but lacking finesse. When I’m angry or frustrated the song in my head, reminding me that I can achieve my goals, never wavers from Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. I want Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, along with Youth Group’s Forever Young played at my funeral, or my wake, or perhaps the party I have on my death bed so I can listen to them too.

And that’s the beauty of music. There is always a song to suit the occasion; to bring back the good old days, comfort you when you are miserable and lift your spirits in times of need. We all have a sound track to our lives, one which invokes memories and makes memories.