At Last

It might only be the first week of March, but we are convinced spring is here. It’s a coping mechanism. Yes, we could get another cold snap, even snow, and the calendar tells us it’s winter for  several more weeks. But the signs are all around. The signs! We can’t ignore them. Crocuses blooming, daffodils shooting up everywhere. Snowdrops have been out in force for weeks now. Surely that’s conclusive evidence.

But the best way to judge whether spring is here (or surely days away) is Seedy Sunday, the annual meeting of gardeners, farmers, foodies, beekeepers, botanists and random children that happens in the rec centre across the road from our house.

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It’s rained the past few Seedy Sundays, but this time it was gorgeous. Which only made it more convincing: at last spring is here. Yes, go crazy buying plants for the garden and birdhouses from the woodworker down the street.

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I don’t know about you, but spring releases me from a winter’s worth of lolling about. Which is not what it seems like during winter–then it’s burrowing in or hibernating or staying cozy. I don’t mean only physical lolling. I get inspired in spring, revitalized to try new things in my writing. It’s a new world, after all.  Those seeds start germinating and expanding and I can’t contain them.

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And this can be dangerous because I start a new project ambitiously and then summer sets in and those long, warm nights call me outside, away from my computer. Fall, winter, those are my writing seasons. Spring is for inspiration, and summer is for….vacation? There’s something not right there, I know. There’s a lot of summer between the inspiration and the getting-down-to-it of the fall. Maybe it depends on whether I’m working towards my own deadlines or someone else’s…

But for now, I’m enjoying the fading of winter and the trumpeting of spring, even if it means the daffodils will freeze next week. They’re brave to try. And that’ s all any of us can do, isn’t it?

When is your best writing season?

XO

Ria

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Spring Clean

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I’ve done it. I’ve just sent my current work-in-progress (WIP) to my agent to review. After that, off it goes to the publisher by the end of this month to sucessfully meet the stipulated “February 2013” deadline. Phew! Just by the skin of my teeth! I was recently chatting with a “person-in-publishing” and she estimated that only one in four writers meet their submission deadlines and I was quite stunned. And determined. I will be that 25%, goshdarnit!

So, as you can imagine, I was relieved and chuffed to get it sent off. Then, as soon as I sat back from the computer screen, something weird happened. Since your last post I’ve been pondering about my own writing habits and rituals and what I observed as soon as I had emailled off the manuscript was that I needed to clean. Deep, down and dirty clean. Get obsessively organised clean. I assume it is a strange “manuscript submission cleaning frenzy syndrome” (M.S.C.F.S?) or maybe my body clock is still on North American seasons and I have got a Spring clean bug. What’s your diagnosis? Have you got it too? Does it happen after submitting your work-in-progress?

Perhaps it’s more noticeable to me because, well, I do not love to clean. I love the place being clean, I just don’t love doing it. Martha Stewart I am not. There are some chores I don’t mind quite as much as others (cleaning out the fridge, vacuuming, clothes washing) but other chores I have been putting off for a, ahem, disgraceful amount of time. During the manuscript writing time I just didn’t have the energy or inclination to do anything much more than stack the dishwasher and throw clothes into the machine, to be honest with you. Cleaning settled right at the bottom of the priority pile. But as soon I’d hit the sent button on the manuscript….those messy, grubby, cluttered areas were firmly in my sights.

I started with B1’s room. Drawers have been labelled, baby clothes stored away, things folded.

B2’s things also did not escape organisation. More labelling, more tidying. B2 helped by pulling all of the nappies out of their neat stack. Thanks, darling.

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The bookshelf, bane of my husband’s existence (“How can one person have SO many books? But haven’t you read that one already?” I mean, I can’t even respond to those questions, you know?!) finally, finally, got sorted. I stacked up books to give away and have been passing them out, one by one, to my friends when we catch up. A soup cookbook for my sister-in-law, A New Zealand wine book for my favourite cafe owner. It’s been great fun pairing up people and books, like a book-matchmaker, and my own shelf is much tidier for it. Don’t tell Matt but he was right, a cull was really required.

I still have our bedroom, the bathroom and the kitchen on the hit-list. Matt did the laundry, bless him, perhaps just to get out of my way as I raced around like a woman possessed. Those areas are going to take a good dose of courage and mettle. A significant amount of elbow grease. When we moved I never bothered to sort out my jewellery and related bits; there is a whole mess of a shelf comprised of bracelets, knotted necklaces and solo earrings. Not to mention the dust that needs dealing with. The stuff that hides in the corners the vacuum can’t be bothered with, the stuff that is on top of and at the back of the fridge. Shudder. A fellow kiwi friend came over to visit last night and she assures me that Australia has a lot more dust than New Zealand. I think she was just trying to be nice, if you know what I mean.

It’s lucky I have this newfound energy for cleaning because, clearly, there is a lot to be done. I’m just trying to use it while it lasts. And before my publisher comes back with a list of suggestions and proposed revisions the length of my broom handle, the thickness of my mega-sponge. Because when that happens the cleaning is going to be as important as it usually is – not at all.

Hugs, Hannah x

Wherein There is Culture

So, I love this word, culture, for several reasons. I have a degree in anthropology–reason number one. But I also love culture because it means stories. You can’t talk about a person’s or a country’s culture without getting into a nice mess of history, anecdotes and social do’s and don’ts. I love that. That’s why we were drawn to writing, right?

So I was pondering a microcosm of this the other day: What is my writing culture? What traditions, superstitions, habits and rituals would I explain when describing the culture I’ve created around my work? Well, some of these we’ve mentioned (read: bemoaned) here before. But I’d like to give you a short list–and I’d love to hear about yours.

-Tea and a baked good beside computer.

-Always write on a computer, unless a flash of genius comes while at a restaurant or on the ferry, in which case, use a napkin/receipt. (Yes, I know–just use my phone, right? But typing on that little keypad is just so…unromantic.)

-Expect a “break” 45 minutes in to phone someone/check email/boil more water for tea.

-Expect that the ambitious 4 hour writing time goal for the day will shrink to 2.5, maybe 3, quite magically.

-Don’t talk to anyone about details of a WIP. Except maybe DH.

-Feel more inspired after: a run, a good film, a good book, a trip to the library/bookstore, a good night’s sleep.

-Email writer friends to ask them if they felt this crappy at this point in their manuscript. Resolve not to send out any more whiny emails.

-Always edit on the hard copy.

-If the original title is just a placeholder, the final title will be really hard to come up with; if the original title is arrived upon before the book is written, the title invariably stays.

-Give boring and self-deprecating elevator pitches when people ask what the book’s about and feel bad about it afterwards.

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Now, I’m not going to show you the above photo without going into the second reason for this post on culture: yogurt. Clever, I know. I’ve just started making my own again after many years buying semi-locally produced organic stuff. It’s not a quick process and it contributes more pots for washing up, but it’s magic. Take some milk, heat it, add some innocuous-looking powdered started cultures, pop the milk in an incubator and start the clock. Come back however many hours later, and you have creamy, tangy, smooth yogurt. I make mine in mason jars, which, I have to admit, adds to the old-fashioned charm of the whole endeavour. I highly recommend it, especially with little ones old enough to appreciate your obvious magicianery.

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The Kitchn has a great, easy how-to for making yogurt overnight in a Dutch oven in your, er, oven, and it’s not going to increase your power bill because you heat the oven, wrap your container and turn the oven off. I bought a yogurt maker that has a tall cover so I can use my litre mason jars and extend the incubating time to get a thicker yogurt. My one disappointment in the past was too-thin yogurt. Don’t you hate that? So I took the advice of a friend in Powell River and let the yogurt cultures grow for 16 to 20 hours. Yes, it makes a more tart and tangy yogurt, but we like that. And if it’s for mixing with jam/preserves/syrup as we tend to do around here for a sweet treat (at least when I’m feeling healthily virtuous), you don’t notice the extra tang. It’s worth it for that voluptuous body. The other tip I’ve picked up for getting thick yogurt is to boil the milk for a long time. Like, 20 minutes or more. It sounds weird and maybe dangerous (you do have to make sure the bottom doesn’t catch and burn), but it does make a difference. Basically, you’re evaporating some of the water and concentrating the other stuff.

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So we’ll see how adding this weekly chore to the list will go long term. DH is skeptical. I admit, it is way easier to pick up a tub of yogurt at the store. Do I really want to be watching a pot of boiling milk at 9 pm on a Sunday night? But I urge you to try it at least once. It’s just one of the secrets of our food that we aren’t privy to anymore, thanks to industrialization and being passive participants in the food production chain. Getting in touch with this ancient form of preserved milk is fascinating. It’s part of our common culture. Oh–did we just come full circle?

How about that.

XO

Ria

Stillness

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It’s been a while since I got out of town. We, because I don’t travel alone anymore. And I don’t mean to another town or the big city, because we’ve done that plenty in recent months. I mean out of town.

This past weekend was the first long weekend in February for us around these parts–Family Day–definitely reason enough to celebrate. Except we weren’t together. DH took the opportunity to go back-country skiing with some other dads (their chances are few; we mums totally get it) and Little e and I were invited to Powell River to visit a friend’s relatives. I’d never been, but I did know it’s a smaller place than our town and has rain forest magic galore. It didn’t disappoint.

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But the thing that struck me about slowing down and being somewhere small, somewhere quiet, was the stillness. Not just around me (and there were several whirl-winds-come-toddlers keeping things energetic) but inside me. I found myself awake at night in the cabin, the fire almost down to embers, the blackness total, a half-dreaming, mumbling little girl pushing her face into my neck, and my thoughts went in all directions. Which, I know, is the opposite of stillness, but it felt like the stillness of everything else was making me restless. Like my mind was in withdrawal from the usual loud, distracting hum of life and didn’t know what to do.

The next morning, thinking back to the travels my mind made in the night, it seemed almost farcical. I hope I’m not the only one whose mind goes to near-schizophrenic places in the wee hours. But I was still unsettled. Still, and unsettled. What was I doing with my writing life? Was it enough? Where did we really, really want to live? And how? Was it feasible to wear ripped jeans to work if the rip was somewhere…personal?

As surreal and uncomfortable as that experience was, it has been incredibly useful. Thank Powell River. It will be meat (tofu?) to chew on for the next weeks and months as DH and I discuss (some of) these important problems. Isn’t it always a balance that’s not quite right? I don’t know anyone who has it all perfectly balanced.

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In any case, the winter beauty of the Sunshine Coast (ironic, yes: no sun all weekend) helped to bring some poetry to the visit, and I found myself inspired despite all the mental turmoil. I’m being challenged by my current WIP, my confidence is sagging, my identity as a writer is a big question in my mind. But it’s all okay. By necessity, it has to be.

(Especially because before we left for home, I found a bakery that makes the most amazing butter tarts. Chocolate ones, nutty ones, plain old buttery, caramelly perfect ones. Sorry there’s no photo, but rest assured, I will be pilgrimaging there again.)

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So I guess what I mean to say is that while it’s been a while since I got out of town, it’s been even longer since I got out of mind. And clearly, doing that is a healthy, if disconcerting, habit.

XO

Ria

It’s all in the detail

I don’t know about you but I am a total snoop. I love learning the inside details of people’s lives. All the little fears and triumphs, the bits n’ bobs that make up a person. I guess that’s why I still like facebook (I know, apparently that puts me in the “old” generation. Sigh.) and why I love reading blogs. We’re all after a bit of something real, aren’t we? And woven into those inside facts about a person’s life there is so much story. I guess, being a writer, that’s what I really love.

So today that’s what I am going to offer you – the details of one day. One very ordinary day. It’s about as far from glamorous as you can get but it’s real. The life of a writer-mama-food lover.

Are you buckled in? Here we go…

Pack babes into the car and head to the doctors. B2 has croup. Again. She barks like a seal and is generating more snot than you would imagine possible. She hates having her nose wiped, reacting like a small tortured animal each time I come close with a tissue. Drive home. Put B2 down for a nap and watch Miniscule with B1. Read books. Paint butterflies on B1’s tummy with face paint. Field toddler tantrums. Skype friends in Macau. Wish them Happy Chinese New Year. Skype Matt. Wish him home. Have lunch.

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Make crabs and bunnies and octopus from playdough. Pick playdough out of carpet. Spy soft, spotty bananas in fruit bowl. Bake healthy flour / sugar / dairy free cookies. Sorry, not bake, grill. Not even embarassed they’re blackened, ’cause they taste pretty good. B1 agrees – yum. Feel chuffed.

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Have a picnic on the floor with toys and cookies. Read books. Play busythings on the Mac. Play on the balcony. Wipe B2 down from filthy balcony. Remind myself to clean it when I have time and inclination. Pah ha ha! Surrender to never cleaning it and instead cleaning children when they come off it. Bemoan more toddler tantrums. Make babes dinner.

Play crocodiles. Crocodiles involves leaping from crib (boat) to mattress (island) without touching the floor (ocean) and getting snapped by crocodiles (imaginary crocodiles). Build towers with wooden blocks. Delight at B2’s new skill = clapping. Ask B1 not to sit on B2’s head. Do some drawing. Sniff the new scented pens we bought. Wipe pen off B1’s nose. Suffer more toddler tantrums. Do some shouting. Put on Desert Island Discs. Go to cloudland (magical, imaginary land found underneath a white, fluffy blankie) with the babes. Bath the babes.

Put babes to bed. Put B1 back into bed. Put B1 back into bed. Put B1 back into bed. Tidy the lounge. Think about folding laundry. Watch some American Idol instead. Make my own dinner. Pasta Gallery Duck + ginger ravioli from Concord farmer’s market with a splash of sesame oil. Delicious. Resolve to buy again. Check out some blogs. Check out facebook. Realise I am procrastinating. Feel guilty. Start working on manuscript (YES!). Receive accidental skype from brother and sister in law. Talk for too long. Laugh a lot. Give up on manuscript. Have a shower. Go to bed. Sleep.

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That is my world. Uneventful but busy. Boring and tiring. Full of lovely moments and challenging ones. There was television watching. There was shouting. But there was some reading and playing and fun too. Sometimes I think I am going mad because I can so quickly go from thinking “Arrrggghhhhh!! Get me out of here!” to “Oh, this is rather nice.” Highs and lows the whole day through, a bit like surfing in a storm. Do you sometimes feel a nuts for loving and loathing your day in equal measure? Oscillating between guilt and gratitude, fun and frustration? Or is it just me?

Personally, I have to have a few sanity measures to get me through this day job of mine. Sometimes they work, sometimes they fail, but I give them a go all the same. One is to get out of the house as regularly as possible. Even if it’s just down to the letterbox or the nearest playground. Another is to try and get some adult conversation. I’m not fussy – anywhere, anyhow. But my favourite of all has to be Desert Island Discs. I am OBSESSED with Desert Island discs. B1 has been listening to Desert Island discs since she was tiny; it feels like tuning in to the wireless in ye olde days. The show has been broadcast since 1942! I talk about it often, trying to infect other people with my virulent, rampant obsession but my enthusiasm can get a little scary. In essence it’s just an interview with someone successful and / or famous, but it’s an interview woven around a selection of music the interviewee would take with them if sent to a desert island. The music deepens the revelations about their past and personal lives and the conversation is frank and reflective. At the end of the show they also get to pick a book and one “luxury” to add to their music. Perhaps it doesn’t sound it, but it is so bloody interesting! It’s like a potted version of someone’s life…with a soundtrack! (I am holding myself back now from adding more sentences that end in exclamation marks. It. is. very. difficult.)

The latest interview I listened to was with Julia Donaldson, who wrote this, ahem, rather famous book. I read it a lot. B1 loves the “wart on the end of his nose”. It’s a real and revealing glimpse into her life; as a writer and a Mum and a wife. I have to say I got a little teary in parts. It’s both sad and sweet; as all well-lived lives are. From the story about how she came to love her husband, to how she lost her son and what made her finish writing The Gruffalo when she was tempted to give up. Because it’s learning about all the behind the scenes stuff that makes a person and their work so much richer, don’t you agree?

As for me, tomorrow will be another day much like the one before. And the one before that. I will read some books. I will listen to Desert Island discs. I will try to write. Plain but true. My day. My details. The life that writers get up to when they’re not making up stories. Living a story of their own.

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The Right Fuel

Wow–that last post was gorgeous. The photos, the recipe, the concept of cheesecake made with cashews, your thoughts on manuscript revision….it all made me drool. Well, maybe not the last one. But it did get my thoughts swirling about how we go about editing and reshaping our works-in-progress (WIPs) with everything else going on in our lives.

I’m in the same boat (mine’s a dingy with only one oar, so I keep going around in circles–what’s yours?). My manuscript is due in about five weeks and several Important Things have been coming between me and it lately. And they have been important. Well…haven’t they? Okay, maybe there’s been some procrastination. And some how-on-earth-can-I-make-this-novel-as-good-as-I-want-it-to-be stressing.

But. BUT. I always feel better with something good to eat beside my pile of manuscript papers. Don’t you?

Since it’s a new year and I’m still regretting all the sweet, unhealthy things I ate over the holidays, I want something wholesome, grainy, comforting and sustaining. Granola bars. Yes, that’s it.

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These are really simple, really easy and fast. They can be altered and doctored and multiplied. And when I sat down to my WIP with a cup of tea and one of these, it felt possible to write a really, really good book. You know–the kind other people would actually want to read. ‘Cause the thing is, I really love editing (most of the time). I love the possibilities becoming reality as I work. I love ticking off the items on my editing to-do list. I love the satisfaction of characters getting rounder, plotlines becoming stronger and things getting funnier or stormier or more layered. I like editing more than writing the first few drafts. But getting started editing, sometimes, is a tough go.

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Granola bars help. They coax my hungry, reluctant inner editor out just long enough to see that it’s not so bad, this manuscript. It has redeeming qualities, and also crumbs between the words.

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XO

Ria

PS-my Best Times to Edit:

One hour before bed.

When home from work early but before picking up Little e.

When Little e naps (a likely story these days).

When I should be marking student essays.

You?

The drought-breaker

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I’ve been in a reading drought. Too little sleep, too much rushing towards a manuscript deadline. No time, no space in my head for any stories other than my own. I’ve been so desperately grasping the thread of my own story I couldn’t possibly read any others.

So when I finally sent off my manuscript to my agent a couple of weeks ago, I quickly found myself at the library, stalking the aisles. There are so many books I want to read, but the first book after a drought is an important choice, don’t you agree? What kind of book do you reach for when you haven’t read for a long time? I look for something not so dense and inaccessible it hurts my head. But also nothing so light that it sets my mind loose, wandering and distracted. I need something a little new, something beguiling yet welcoming. And so it was The Tiger’s Wife came home with me.

I’d heard about The Tiger’s Wife and was intrigued most by the story of the author. Tea Obreht is young and very talented and this is her debut novel. She was born in 1985 (I know, you had to read that twice, right?!) and The Tiger’s Wife won her the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. This rich, layered novel is set in a Balkan country, told over the period of seemingly endless wars, swinging back and forth between Natalia (the protagonist)’s life and the wars of her time, and her grandfather’s life and the wars of his time. It’s a thick braid of folklore, magic, grief and grit and has been compared to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The voice is fresh and cool and unique, the setting captivating and the characters complex. And I am writing this as I am a mere few pages from the end, struggling to rein myself back from hurrying through the very last of it.

It is oh-so-nice to be reading again. It feels like a treat. Especially when there is laundry to be hung, a fridge to be cleaned out, a nappy bag to be restocked for tomorrow’s activities. No, no, chores, you can all wait, you nagging little imps. I’m reading. But, to be honest with you, it wasn’t so easy to start with. It had been so long since I read a book (not blog, not magazine, not scanning my manuscript for dozens of flaws) that I felt rusty. My attention slid all over the place. I was irritated and restless. I couldn’t read much at a time without getting up and doing something practical and “productive”. It was though the reading aspect of my brain had laid idle so long it had to remember how to do it again. But slowly, chapter by chapter, the memory came back, the muscles were re-flexed and, as the Aussies would say, I was “back in the game”.

At the same time all this not-reading business was going on poor Sydney town has been suffering from heat-waves and state-wide fires. It has been an absolute sizzler summer. And we’re not even half-way through. This week the temperatures reached 45 degrees. (That’s 113 fahrenheit, North American peeps) We bunkered down at my in-laws place and lolled about in the air conditioning like puppies. We literally didn’t leave the house all day. It’s supposed to get very, very hot again at the end of next week and if it’s anything like last week it is a heat you cannot shelter from. Even the wind is hot and moist; like being blasted with a hairdryer. All you can do is hide and pant and nap. Or make this:

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I whizzed this up from items in my latest fruit and veggie box delivery (peaches and spearmint), with the addition of some frozen peas. The combination is a bit nuts, I’ll admit it (hey, heat addles your brain!) but surprisingly refreshing. I made it with greek yoghurt and milk this time, thinking of a cardamon lassi my brother-in-law kept raving about from his trip to India, but next time I am leaving out the dairy to make it even more palate-refreshing. The spearmint is gorgeous and cooling, yet still sweet, and the bright summer peaches are so full of juice you have to be careful cutting into them. The frozen peas, clearly the odd-ball addition, chill the whole thing down a notch and add a grassy, garden flavour. Very English summer. And when it is so hot you could bake eggs on the pavement? This hits the spot, let me tell you.

I’ll leave you with the recipe for when the season is right and you’re in the mood. I’m off to scan my bookshelf for a good book to pair with it because now the drought is broken I am thirsty for more, more, more.

…………..

The drought-breaker:

Two juicy, ripe peaches, skins removed

About ten spearmint leaves

1/4 cup of frozen peas

greek yoghurt and milk or water and ice – depending on your preference

Blend until smoothie consistency. Yummo.

……………

HUGS, Hannah x