Write the truth

The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.

-Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin


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Ups and downs

You won’t believe the silly thing that lead me to break my nearly two month long writing streak.

I did laundry.

In preparation to go home and see my family for the summer, I needed to get all my laundry done, so I hauled my clotheshorse out of the bathroom and put it up in it’s usual spot. Unfortunately, its usual spot is in front of the desk where I normally write. So instead of putting my computer on the desk before I went to bed bed that night, I put it on my comfy chair instead, thinking it was no big deal if I sat there to write.

Turns out, it was a big deal. The next day, some time in the evening, I suddenly thought to myself, “Hey, did I write today?” And I honestly could not remember if I had or not. I opened the document and wrote a few sentences, just to ensure that I had, in fact, written. But I didn’t learn, and the next day I found myself wondering whether I’d written anything once more.

To be fair, it wasn’t just laundry that got in the way. The summer rush that happens every year is starting to kick in at work. I wanted to get in a few more girl nights before I left the city for more than two months. I needed to make sure my place won’t be a nightmare to return to in the fall. Once I arrived at my parents’ house, I was immediately roped into babysitter duty for my two-year-old nephew. Making dinner for everyone is my responsibility on days when my mom is working late, and unlike in the city when I can just make it whenever I’m hungry, it needs to be on the table by five. Then it was Dr. Who Night with my cousins. My sister’s birthday was a few days ago, so I had find time to go into town and buy a present for her, and make a cake on her actual birthday and then have dinner and then coffee with the family. I’m also attempting to be less of a sloth this summer, but my trips to the gym are, as always, dependent on just how bad the summer work rush gets.

And, and, and, and…

And I haven’t written a word for Garden of Princes in maybe two weeks. I have written other things, but mostly doodles that I don’t intend to do anything with at the moment. It’s just so frustrating how I keep on sabotaging myself like this.

Of course, I don’t think all the blame lies with the various responsibilities that have been piling up lately. I’ve arrived at a place in Garden where I just don’t know where I’m going, and the inevitable result was that my daily efforts yielded fewer and fewer words and more and more trivial scenes being put on paper.

Writing just to see where I’m going doesn’t work for me, because it feels like I’m going nowhere. I keep telling myself that I need to sit down and come up with a plan instead of complaining about not having a plan, but my head appears to be too far up my own ass to actually hear it. So. That’s where I am right now.

How about you guys? Hope you’re having a more productive writing summer than I am!

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One month in

Exactly one month ago today – May 3rd – I started writing The Garden of Princes. Throwing caution to the wind, I went in blind, without much of a plan beyond how it all got started and how it would end. Everything in between those two points was a huge blank. And now, I’ve written every day for thirty two days straight. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before in my life. And even better, I’m nowhere near a burnout.

In some ways though, I feel that my lack of a plan is coming back to bite me in the butt. One of the reasons why I was so reluctant to get started on a big project in the first place, was that I get so demotivated when I feel like I don’t know where I’m going. While that’s still true, I’m glad I’ve gotten started; when I’m actually writing, I’m forced to think about the project for an extended period of time each day. I’ve realized a lot of things about the story and jotted down ideas for later use, so I’ve got a much better idea of where I’m going than I did a month ago. I’ve filled twenty pages of a notebook, and I keep adding to it every day.

I have, however, come to realize that the main plot lines may not work as well together as I would want them to. The timelines feel off, so I may end up chopping out one of them and save it for later. I guess it’s good that I’m seeing this now and not when I’ve written ten thousands of words for the plot, but it’s still fairly frustrating to contemplate losing a good chunk of what I’ve written so far. Of course, it’s this plot line that gave the project its name, so now I really have to think of a new title.

I’ve got plenty of time though, as this is turning out to be slow work. I’m trying to come to terms with how long it’s going to take me to finish this first draft, but I’m finding it hard. As some of you might have seen at the bottom of the blog, I’ve set myself a deadline on December 1st, but I’m not sure that’s entirely realistic. On one hand, the six months between now and December 1st sound like an eternity. On the other hand, I’m trying not to burn myself out on the project, like I’ve done so many times in the past. If I keep going at the pace I’ve been going at for the past month, I think I’ll end up missing the deadline. Not by a whole lot, but I’m toying with the possibility of giving myself more time instead of hoping that I’ll pick up the pace later on. It is, after all, better to finish sometime next year than it is to give up on the project altogether because I’m always wishing that my process was different than it is. I may be a fast typist, but that doesn’t translate into being a fast writer.

So, how are you guys’ WIPs coming along?

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Literary memories

Certain smells can conjure up memories. A specific taste might remind you of a time long gone. A snapshot  of a younger version of a friend may put a smile on your face as you remember the occasion when the picture was taken. A song from long ago can transport you back through the years to a special moment that the tune accompanied. There are many paths to the past, but few ever speak of literature as one of them.

Perhaps it is because reading a novel can be such a drawn-out process, especially as we grow into adults. Too often, we find our time laid claim to by work, chores, children, a significant other… In short, responsibilities. More often than not, we spread out our reading time, maybe over a few days, weeks, or even months. A novel doesn’t point back to one single moment, but several.

Still, I remember a warm July night nearly fourteen years ago, when I started a new book I’d gotten for my fifteenth birthday, I didn’t think I’d like it. Much later that same night, I finished in a fever. Instead of a story for my nine year old sister, I found breathless wonder between the pages. I’d never wished so hard for a fictional world to be real. The book? Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  The next day I went into town with a friend, and I bought the two next installments and couldn’t wait to devour them.

White Fang by Jack London will always be my childhood, read over and over and over again. I never tired of it and never worried about whether there was more to the story than just what was on the page. Nobody had yet taught me about symbolism, anthropomorphism or what have you. I just loved what was on the page.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen is the boys at school, making their voices high pitched and themselves silly as they read Nora’s lines out loud.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is that spring when I started reading again, after years of not really opening other books than my textbooks. It will always remind me of curling up in the black chair in front of my brimming bookshelves. I still bought books as if I finished another every few days. Though I liked the novel, I had to set an alarm for ten minutes, and I was not allowed to get up from that chair before the alarm went off. It was hard to accept that I, who had always read everything and anything, had come to that.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was the first book I raced through after the long break. I was home from university for the summer, and my parents were away. I had laid claim to the upstairs living room, and I sat up until the wee hours of the morning without ever feeling that it was a chore to keep reading. I was happy that night.

Native Son by Richard Wright is that April when I finished my thesis, and really should have been reading other things. My professor mentioned the novel in class, but it wasn’t on our list. I started reading it in a coffee shop, and I had to fight to keep my expression normal at times. I squirmed internally almost throughout the whole novel, because some parts of it are so uncomfortable. But I also loved it.

Though it’s too soon to tell, I think I will find it hard to read Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair without remembering the stroll around Portobello Market with my sister,  and the chat with the old man there who was so excited that I still had my first Graham Greene ahead of me. I will think of sitting on the second story of a red bus, knowing instantly, as soon as I’d read the first sentence, that I would like what followed. I’ll remember reading at a Starbucks in London and racing towards the end of the book as the Piccadilly line took me to the airport at the end of my trip.

I don’t always remember what I was going on in my life as I was reading a book for the first time. Then again, not every smell or taste conjures up memories either. Sometimes a picture is just a picture, and a song is just a song. But sometimes, I do remember. Vividly.


I’ve been told I English very good

I’ve worked as a freelance translator for close to five years now, but I’ve never actually translated anything but single lines into English before. That in itself is not uncommon; a lot translators usually stick to translating into their own language, and for good reason. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to reach the same level of understanding of a foreign language that you naturally have of your mother tongue. Native speakers may not consciously know the rules, but they can still pick up on things that sound ‘off’ in many cases.

Having studied English extensively for twenty years, I feel quite competent at producing English words myself. I’ve surprised many a native speaker by revealing that English is not my first language. Still, speaking a language and being good at translating into that same language is far from the same thing. I learned that the hard way when I started freelancing. The job I thought was going to be a breeze turned out to be quite challenging at times. It’s so easy to be influenced by the structures and the words that you’re seeing, and produce a stilted translation as a result. The more you translate, the more proficient you will be at divorcing yourself from the actual words on the page and come up with a translation that sounds natural. You remember things your proof readers have pointed out in the past, what you’ve seen others do, certain turns of phrases that work in this or that context. Most of all, you learn to take a step back and think for a moment about what you would actually say.

But then someone asks you to reverse the process, and it’s like being a flailing rookie again. Suddenly you’re faced with structures and expressions that are more drilled into your head than those of a foreign language could ever be, and you’re second guessing yourself to high heaven. Would a native English speaker say this? How on earth do I convey the meaning of this phrase which is so obvious to me but sounds so strange in English? Honestly, it’s enough to make me wonder if I even speak English at all.

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Although I haven’t really written anything substantial in a long while, I’ve never lacked for ideas. I’ve squirreled them away in a folder on my computer, in various notebooks lying around my room, on scraps of paper, whatever was closest when inspiration struck. Still other ideas have been forgotten, because nothing was handy to write with then and there, or because I thought, with great hubris, that I would remember.

Of course, if you keep having ideas without actually writing them, it builds up and suddenly you’re not only struggling to write, but struggling to choose what you most want to write about when you finally get over yourself. For months, I’ve been saying, “Just do it. Just start writing it and worry about everything else later.” I’ve genuinely wanted to follow my own orders, but with more than a hundred ideas to choose from, it was overwhelming. I just didn’t know which idea to go with.

There were a few front runners, but not one obvious winner. None of them were fully developed – far from it – but all had little bits and pieces that were waiting for me to fit them into a larger framework. In the end, I chose the one that had both a beginning and an end. It’s a fantasy, and quite possibly too large in scope to be my first big project after a long hiatus from writing. It’ll likely take years to pull together the storyline I have in mind. I’m actually toying with the idea of starting one of the other stories as well, just to be able to alternate a bit, but we’ll see how it goes first. I don’t want to spread myself to thin.

The working title is The Garden of Princes, but that’s likely to change as soon as I can find something better to call it. I don’t know how I feel about getting into the details yet, partly because I don’t have many details yet, and partly because I’ve always preferred to be a bit tight-lipped about what I’m working on. But in my head, it’s sort of a blend between Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. (argh!) Martin. I haven’t gotten all that far yet, but chapter one is done, chapter two is starting to take shape, and I’ve had a good time (mostly) when sitting down to write in the mornings. So that bodes well, I guess, but ask me again next week!

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Starbucks names

Anyone who has a name that’s the slightest bit out of the ordinary has probably experienced this: You’re talking to the person behind the counter of a Starbucks, and he or she asks your name to put on your cup of coffee. You pause, preparing yourself to enunciate. every syllable of your moniker as clearly as possible. Maybe this time they’ll get it right.

Or not.

My siblings have both relinquished all hope of ever seeing their names spelled right. My brother simply gives a different name to write down. My own name, Heidi, is not particularly unusual, nor very hard to spell, so when I went to my first Starbucks a few years ago, I wasn’t expecting it to be a thing.  I quickly learned, though, that there are countless ways in which to mishear and misspell Heidi. Fortunately I always look forward to seeing what the barista comes up with next. I’m actually a little disappointed when they get it right. Where’s the fun in that?

So far, I’ve been dubbed Hidy, Hiedi, Hany, Hayde… The less outrageously wrong Heidie and Heidy have also appeared from time to time. But my favorite by far has to be Hiny, courtesy of a barista in Manchester. My friend and I had a good chuckle at that one!

What weird things have you been called by hapless baristas?

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London calling?

I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. Back in late February, in a fit of “something’s gotta give”, I applied for a job in London. A few days ago, I was told I got it. I’m happy, but it turns out that there are quite a few things about the position that aren’t what I thought, so I’m on the fence about taking it.

The idea of living London is thrilling, and it’s still true that something has got to give, but I find myself wondering if it’s really worth it to turn my life upside down for this job that I can’t see myself staying in for more than a year or two, if that. There are so many pros and cons that my head is spinning, and if I hear one more person say, “well, it’s your decision”, I might scream.

On one hand, the move in itself isn’t going to make me happy. If it’s just the same old life in a different city, I’m better off staying here, to be honest. But on the other hand, it could be a great first step towards breaking the destructive patterns I seem to be stuck in.

At the very least I think it would be good for my writing. I would have regular working hours; fifteen hour days would be a thing of the past. I would have weekends again, vacations, and free time every evening with no chance of it being interrupted by an assignment that needs immediate attention. Just the thought of that makes me a little giddy. It’s been so long since I’ve had time that was truly my own. There’s always that nagging thought in the back of my mind that tells me I might get work any second. In fact, as I’m writing this, it’s ten o’clock at night, and my phone just trilled at me.

(I’ve developed a twitch in response to the email noise on my phone. You think I’m kidding? I’m not kidding!)

When I applied, I had some conditions in mind for what I needed in order to say yes to the job. I was prepared to negotiate on some, but now it’s become clear that very few things about the position actually meet those conditions. Perhaps I should have said no right away, because I really feel that I’m worth more than they’re offering. But here I am, thinking about throwing all those real, legitimate concerns out the window and just go for it, consequences be damned. After all, I’ve been talking a lot about how necessary it is for me to make changes, and sometimes you just got to take a chance. But maybe not this one?

What if?

Many years ago, a friend of me called me, quite fittingly, a “what-iffer”. I laughed at the time, but it really is a great description of me. Perhaps it’s a sign of an imagination that is a smidge on the dark side, but I have never had a problem seeing the worst case scenario, however improbable. Sometimes this quality protects me from making foolish choices, and I suppose that’s good, but often, it also keeps me from taking chances. If there’s something I’m supposed to do or want to do, I tend to take this thing and build it up in my head until it’s become an invincible beast I can’t slay. Then, because I feel there’s no way I can overcome the obstacles that are “sure” to come in my way, I put it off. And put it off some more. And some more, for good measure. I put it off until the opportunity has passed, or I’m forced by some external force to tackle it.

When I am forced to deal with things, I usually find that reality is far from as terrifying as it had become in my mind. Even if it is bad, after it’s happened, I will always find a way to be okay with how it turned out. I have to, because the only thing you can change about the past is your perspective of it. The rest is, as we say, history, and therefore not worth agonizing over. And yet, even knowing this, I find it extremely difficult to break the habit of sticking my head in the sand.

In many ways, we take a chance when we start a new project. We’re taking a chance that we actually have something to say that people will find worth listening to. We’re taking a chance that we have sufficient skill to say it in a way that does our message justice. We’re taking a chance on baring the inner workings of our minds to a world that has the potential to be both beautiful and harsh. Once our thoughts exist as words on a page out there, they no longer belong to us alone. Those who read them will do with them as they please. If it pleases them to stomp and spit on them, they can and will, often with ferocious glee. It won’t be any skin off their noses.

My nose, however, might be rubbed raw, and I guess I assume that it will be eventually. The what-iffer in me can’t imagine anything but failure, but of course, my hypothetical failure is like a hundred other things I’ve built up in my head before. It’s not as terrifying as I think it will be; there’s always life after failure, and where there’s life, there’s another chance to slay the beast you thought invincible.

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About a month ago, in an effort to introduce a little bit of structure into my writing time and ensure that I would actually get a little bit of writing done, I went into Google calendar and set up some alarms to remind me it was time to get down to business. Since I’m so rusty, I wanted to take it slow: only five minutes per day, then five minutes more the next week, five minutes more the week after that, and so on. If I wanted to keep going, I could obviously continue, but I didn’t want to spend half an hour staring at the screen if I just wasn’t feeling it.

The results… well, they were wildly inconsistent.

A lot of the time, I just plain ignored the alarm. Often I had good reasons to do so. In hindsight, I probably picked a bad time for the alarms to go off, though I’m not sure that a different time would have worked better. Life as a freelancer can be very loosy-goosy, and it’s been a long time since I’ve adhered to a strict schedule for anything. I’m just not used to that way of thinking anymore, and it’s hard to adjust.

I really wanted to stick to the plan, but I found that it was very difficult to actually do so. Sometimes I was still working when the alarm went off at five thirty. Other times I had just finished working and was halfway into cooking dinner when my phone informed me it was time to write. Or I had just left the house to go for a much needed walk to clear my head. Or I suddenly felt like I had a head full of fuzz. Or, or, or, a hundred different ors. Don’t get me wrong, I did write quite a bit during the past month; I’m just not so sure that the reminders had anything to do with it. Like I said, I often ignored the alarms, and if I did write, it was later in the evening.

Perhaps that means I should try again, but set up the reminders later in the day. I do thrive on structure, but I also get so terribly frustrated when I have to go off schedule, which is bound to happen when work gets busy. I know I shouldn’t count on failure before I’ve even gotten started, but I feel that if I have a set plan, I will eventually give up. Maybe I just have to accept that my life isn’t compatible with a strict schedule, even if I like the idea of just sitting down at a specific time, without having to actively make the decision every day; it would just be my routine.

The real crux of the problem, I suppose, is that I can’t predict what tomorrow is going to look like, let alone next week. I get assignments when I get them, and there’s no such thing as a heads up before a particularly slow or particularly busy period. I just have to take whatever comes my way. I suppose I’m fortunate to have more busy periods with work than I do slow periods, but that also means that when I have a little breather, I feel like I should take advantage of the opportunity to relax. I rarely get more than a few hours of reprieve before the next work email ticks in, and my to-do list is hardly ever empty. But if I always allow myself to relax, however well-deserved the break may be, I will never write another word again. That’s how I ended up going four years without writing much of anything, after all.

I’m always interested to hear what other people do. Do you schedule your writing time, or do you just write as and when the mood strikes you? Do you make a point to write every day, even on busy days, or do you think it’s best to ease up when there’s just to much going on?

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