Higher States of Confidence

An affliction that I think affects many creative types is being slightly embarrassed or even unwilling to talk about their work and sell themselves.  I’ve had a couple of conversations with a friend recently (an artist who designed the front cover for my novella Momentum) about what to say when asked the age-old question, ‘So, what do you do for a living?’ by somebody you meet for the first time. And we agreed that we would both mention in the first instance what we did for the day job, rather than what defines us as human beings.

But why? In my opinion, the question is loaded from the start. There are thousands of people like us whose number one passion is not something they can make a living from. That’s a simple fact. Even published, established authors make money on the side. So for some, how they make money is not actually that important in the grand scheme of things. But yet I would still say I work in ecommerce if somebody asked me the question.

A better way to express it would be to say ‘what do you do?’ which takes the financial aspect out and gives the opportunity to say, ‘Well, I write.’ But even then I’d be reluctant to do so. The main reason for that is a lack of confidence, I think. Which is stupid, and my friend agreed. Why not big up the fact? Writing novels is not something many can say. People have paid to read my work, which means I am an author and that is no word of a lie. My friend does stencilling and art all the time for people and charges a fee for it, and he’s incredibly talented. This creativity is not an impulse, it’s at the heart of everything I do. How I pay the bills is not.

So we’ve decided to be more honest with everyone we meet about who we are. Not only is it the truth, it’s far more interesting than the 9 to 5 job. And being more open about it can provide opportunities, it’s good networking, to use that horrible business speak, and you never know, I might get a few more sales out of it. And being an author is cool, right?! That’s what I’ve always thought. So it’s a win-win all round.

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Painting Pictures

I’ve got a new story to share, although the circumstances behind this one are a little different. Since finishing the rewrite of my third novel Gaslight I’ve not done anything in the way of new writing at all. Which was fine to start with, as I needed a break, but the desire to write is always there and sooner or later it becomes a necessity.

But I couldn’t get the spark, so fell back on an exercise of sorts. A lot of my writing ideas have been inspired by music, so I turned to a few old favourites on Spotify and came across an old romantic ballad from the early 90s which I’ve always kind of liked and a friend of mine is mad about. So I thought I’d basically write the story of that song. It didn’t take too much – a few listens and then I wrote it across two or three evenings. The story fulfilled its main purpose, which was to get the creative blood pumping again, and I thought I’d offer it here. It’s very short, not even 2000 words, and I’ve done next to no editing. I want the story to seem fresh, to come off the page as quickly as it went down.

For that reason it’s a little more rough around the edges and as such I won’t be publicising it too much. One for the diehards, as it were. It’s called ‘Painting Pictures’.

PAINTING PICTURES

For once, I was out like a light. The beer and marijuana had done their job. There were no dreams, just an inviting emptiness to wade into. Then a buzzing sound starting way back in the subconscious, growing louder with every heartbeat…

I snapped an eye open. A phone was ringing. I raised onto an elbow, the taste of weed on my tongue. Coming up for 6am. I could make out Elmore sitting on my computer chair, surveying the vast expanse of desert that lay beyond the window. The first flickers of sunlight threw pink tendrils across the horizon. Elmore was stock still, the only movement a faint flicker of his tail against the leather of the seat. Well, it was a great view.

It wasn’t my cell. Either of them. Coverage was spotty out here, and it was too early for work calls. Hardly anyone had my personal number. Those that did would be asleep. Now I was fully awake, I knew it was the phone in the kitchen. I ssat up and swung my legs out of bed. Looked down at my feet. Felt the mild stirrings of an alcohol-induced headache. The phone continued to ring. It wasn’t an emergency. I knew who was calling. The time of night, trying to make a statement, that it was really important. Unlikely. We’d been down this path before. I thought about letting it ring out, get back into bed and doze until the alarm went off. It was tempting, but there was no point. The ploy had worked. I pulled on a T- shirt and headed for the kitchen.

The phone was across from the breakfast nook, next to the fridge. I pulled the phone from its cradle and slid down into the vacant space beside the fridge, facing the screen door. One of its hinges was loose, and it rattled when there was a gust of wind. I stared out at the scrub, the barren patches of dirt beginning to lighten. The whiteness of Clyde’s fence starting to penetrate the darkness. Elmore leapt up onto the counter, narrowly missing the empty beer cans littering its surface. He miaowed softly, then fell silent. As if anticipating something. I knew how he felt. I placed the phone to my ear and waited, twisting the coils of the line around a finger. I could hear traffic. Then a slamming sound. The traffic quitened. Probably in a pay phone. I continued to wait. I could hear her breathing, but remained mute. It had to come from her. If we were going to start this again, it had to come from her.

‘Scottie,’ she said, and a tremor ran up my spine. Took me straight back to the first time she called me that, with my arm across her shoulder, parked up in a secluded spot under a sky full of stars. I closed my eyes and got lost in the memory. She giggled and said my name again. It was a high-pitched giggle, and right away I knew she was in one of her manic periods, riding the wave before the inevitable crash and burn.

‘Ali,’ I said. ‘It’s 6 in the morning.’

‘Well, duh. You know me, Scottie. Early to bed, early to rise.’ That screeching laugh once more. She sounded burnt out, or close to being so. There was another bang at her end. ‘Just a sec,’ she shouted, and her voice went away. The traffic sounds swarmed in, there was some more raised voices, then she came back on the line. ‘Won’t take no for an answer,’ she said. ‘Had to give the guy two bucks. Can find another payphone, am I right?’

I rested my head against the cool fridge. ‘Ali, where are you?’

I heard the striking of a match, then a sharp inhale. Smoking again. That was never a good sign. ‘Where do you think? Sin City, of course. The perfect place for a girl like me, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Vegas? You’re in Las Vegas?’

‘Err, yeah. This place is CRAZY, I’ll tell you that. Yesterday, I saw a man in a cowboy hat ride a horse down the Strip. He was drinking a beer, too. The man that is, not the horse. Haha. That was a good one. I’ll have to remember that. Yow!’

Las Vegas. I thought back to when she left, a scrawled note saying she needed some space, she was letting me down and had to get her head straight. Her closet empty, the vague trace of her perfume lingering. All her meds gone from the bathroom cabinet. No idea where she had gone, not knowing if it was for real this time, or just another stunt to leave me frantic with worry and sick with love, until she came down and came home, and I would always take her back. Knowing I was the only one who could keep her safe and happy. Until it all got too much again.

But I would never have expected her to turn up in Vegas. Can make a mess of the most sensible individual, and Ali was not one of those. The temptations, the drinking, the drugs, the gambling. Add a girl in the throes of an episode and it was a potent brew.

‘You never called,’ I said.

‘I’ve been busy,’ she insisted. ‘You know this city never sleeps.’

‘I was worried. I spoke to your Mom, she said…’

‘Don’t tell me. “’That’s Alison for ya! Always with her head in the clouds, that girl. If her father was here, he’d give her a good clip round the ear!”’

That was actually pretty accurate. Ali can be sharp as glass. ‘She wouldn’t tell me where you’d gone.’

‘Probably cos she doesn’t know. When I disappear, I do it properly.’

She wasn’t thinking how much her words hurt, the lack of empathy for anyone, including herself. This was worn ground, but I knew one thing. She needed to come home.

‘You know better than anyone,’ she was saying. ‘How I get. The damage I cause. I can’t be around you when I get like that. It’s not fair.’ Her voice lowered to a whisper. ‘I’m tired, Scottie. I’m coming to the end of the road. You understand that, don’t you?’

I swallowed hard. ‘You know I do, Ali. But I can’t keep chasing after you, baby. I love you so much, but I – ‘ Fuck. The tears were pricking my eyelids, as predictable as night following day. ‘Please. Get on a plane and come home.’

She laughed. The quiet moment had passed. ‘You know, I’ve got a better idea. I’ve been thinking about Mexico.’

‘What about it?’

‘Silly. About a trailer right by the sea. Crystal blue waters to wake up to every morning. Doesn’t that sound swell?’

My bottom lip was trembling. ‘Ali, not this again.’

‘You always say that! What’s the point in having dreams if we’re not gonna fulfil them? I’d be happier there. More secure. We can drink tequila and look for seashells on the beach.’

‘But it’s impossible – ‘

‘They have gardens in Mexico, don’t they? Plenty of rich gangsters needin’ some landscaping. And I’ve been waitressing, getting loaded up with tips. Some of the old fuckers here think a few dollars and I’ll be dropping my drawers for them. Haha, bunch of fools. We’d have the money. Come on, Scottie. Get in the truck and come save me.’

‘You make it sound so simple.’

‘Cos it is, you numbskull. How’s Elmore?’

He must have heard his name. His ears pricked up and he jumped off the counter, had a big stretch, and shambled to the screen door. Once set, he miaowed loudly and proceeded to wash his front paws.

‘I can hear him,’ Ali said, and her voice cracked. ‘My baby.’

‘Thought I was your baby?’ I replied, and she laughed. I was falling under her spell. This Mexico thing was a silly pipe dream we used to talk about when stoned. Walking away from society and setting up on our own. I imagined laying beside her in the warm white sand, Elmore chasing back the waves and running for cover when the water got too close. I looked around at this place, her pictures off the wall and in the drawer, physical traces gone but her spirit and soul everywhere. Maybe it would be something. A fresh start and all that. That was her power. She could sell me any dream.

I looked over at Elmore. He had finished grooming himself and was staring intently out into the yard. Every night he would sit there at dusk, waiting for her car to pull up in the driveway. That squeal of excitement when she realised he was on guard duty. Opening the screen door and standing with arms open wide as Elmore jumped into them. Smiling at me over the top of his head.

Until she left. And he wouldn’t abandon his post. Sitting there every night until I had to pick him up and carry him away. I had the scratches to prove it. And just like me, as soon as he begun to realise that she wasn’t coming back, the car would backfire coming down the street and his ears would prick up and he knew she was going to weave her spell over him once more. She was good at that. Just as we were starting to get back on our feet.

‘So he’s doin’ good?’ she whispered.

I swallowed. I needed an aspirin. ‘Doing fine. He misses you.’

‘Bring him with you,’ she said breathlessly. ‘Use that mangy old cage in the garage. Fill up the car. Get some gas and get on your way. Drive like you’ve never driven before. Come on, Scottie. Please. I’m begging you.’

‘Hey sister!’ someone shouted in the background. ‘You gonna be in there all mornin’, or what? I got errands to run!’

‘The natives are getting restless,’ she said. ‘You have to come. You must. Think of Mexico, Scottie. Of Mexico, and me. I have to go.’

‘But I don’t even know how to get in touch with you,’ I shouted.

‘I’ll be here. Waiting. It’s now or never, Scottie.’

‘Ali, wait – ‘ But there was a click and she was gone. I slammed the phone back into the cradle. She always did this. That fucking trailer by the sea. I’d heard it countless times before, but yet. Something in her voice. Something with more longing. Knowing that it was her only hope, that if I didn’t go it would be the end. One way or another.

Elmore turned his head and looked at me. I knew it was stupid. But I couldn’t help but see it, the three of us together, as it should be. That beautiful water. I leaned back against the fridge and closed my eyes, thinking that maybe this time it could work, maybe this time it would turn out just the way she planned.

Big Bang

Health wise, 2019 hasn’t been a very good year for me so far. I had a couple of days off work for illness at the start of the year, while wrestling with alcohol issues, and last week I was hit with a severe gum infection. Whilst laid up in bed not being able to sleep I’ve been doing what seems to be everyone’s leisure pursuit of choice – watching crap on Netflix. Having exhausted the Line of Duty back catalogue (impeccable, writing perfection), I’ve been indulging in a comedy I used to love but now look upon with indifference. The Big Bang Theory.

The first three seasons of The Big Bang Theory are really quite brilliant. Like all great comedies, the premise is very simple. A bunch of scientific guys, obsessed with video games, comic books and film, and their attempts to understand and relate to girls. Endless comic potential there. The cute girl next door, Penny, and her relationship with Leonard is what the show hangs on. It’s a familiar comedic theme, the ‘will-they-won’t they’ story arc. Friends, Frasier, Cheers all run on it, and there are many more. And it’s brilliant and sweet and funny to watch as Leonard and Penny grow closer.  Whilst the guys make fools of themselves, they have a sweetness at heart (even rentagob Howard, in my opinion) and the writers never try to make fun of them or their lifestyle choices. They like what they like and are happy being so.

But after about season 4 I began to lose interest. This is because the show ran into a problem which has afflicted many others. How to keep the show entertaining once the characters got together. OK, so Leonard and Penny get together. Then what? Can they still be as funny as a couple? Hmm… maybe split them up then. But the audience knows and wants them to be together. So have them make up… and so on and so forth, in ever decreasing circles. It was even worse for Howard and Sheldon. Howard gets a girlfriend and his identity disappears. Sure, he was crude and annoying,  but at least he had some edge. Sheldon’s fate was worse – he got paired off with the female version of himself. This worked OK for a while and raised a few laughs, but then like the other relationships, it descended into boring sitcom stuff about marriage and kids and the show lost its way.

From a writing perspective, it feels like the writers were in an impossible bind. Moving the characters lives on meant losing what made them funny in the first place, and reduced the show to a tedious character driven comedy rather than the loose situation show of the early seasons. But, they would argue, the characters have to move somewhere, or the show stagnates. True. But what they should have done is nip the show in the bud before it got lost in a relationship morass rather than letting the self-indulgence spread to twelve seasons. Give the people what they want and get out. Sheldon getting married seems to me the antithesis of what the character was about, even allowing for the inevitable character development from being in a long-term relationship. Just comes across as terrifically dull.

I guess The Big Bang Theory is a victim of its own success. The ratings were so large they were never going to kill it off.  Once the guys had success with women the show’s central premise began to break down, and what laughs remained came from standard relationship mishap fare then has been mined hundreds of times before. That’s where writing fiction has an advantage – you can kill your darlings whenever you want, and always ensure you never outstay your welcome.

I watch the opening seasons with huge fondness, and it still has me in stitches. It has a beautiful heart behind it, an innocence that is impossible to fake, and really lovely interplay. Penny is a star in those seasons, Leonard has courage and bravery and Sheldon is brilliant, bemused and crotchety. It works so well it makes me a little sad to see where the show ended up. The downside of success, I guess.

 

 

46,15

That’s the number of days and hours I went without drinking. 1119 hours, to be precise. I wrote last month about my struggles with alcohol and wrestling with making some major changes to my relationship with booze. That meant sobriety to clear my head and give myself a break. Now the real challenge has begun – to see if I can maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol or if complete abstention is the only way forward.

I’d sort of pencilled in yesterday as the day when I might have a beer. I was up in London at a Don McCullin exhibition (an extraordinary photographer who is a creative hero of mine) and after doing a lot of walking and sightseeing I found myself thinking about the pub as the sun was beginning to set.  I was tired and if I’m honest, enjoying the thought of having one. So I found a decent pub serving decent beer, and bought a half.

It was strange for the first minute or two. I had the glass stood on the bar in front of me, and I just looked at it. I waited for someone to tap me on the shoulder and ask what the hell I was doing, but nobody seemed bothered. It looked like beer, with a bit of froth running down the side of the glass and that pure golden colour picking up the last of the sun coming through the glass. I knew what it would taste like. But still I hesitated. I did have a fleeting moment where I was going to walk out. I thought of the 46 days I’d accrued. Whether this drink was going to set me on a downward spiral or be a nice relaxing, solitary beer to end the day. Then I drank some. It tasted fine. I waited for the buzz of alcohol to hit. It took a few more sips. I finished the glass and left.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the only drink I had. Indeed, I had a couple more than I was planning to. I stuck to halves, but did myself a disservice by buying a couple of cans to see me through the train journey home. That’s always been part of the problem, stopping before the night is over. I drank one on the train and the other at home after dinner. so the pace was leisurely and sensible. Only 3 pints in total, but deep down I know it’s not ideal. Still all the hallmarks of the old bad habits.

Today I haven’t felt too fantastic either. On the lighter end of the hangover scale, but still noticeable. I did an hour’s walk and felt slightly nauseous on my return, and definitely dehydrated. I haven’t missed this side of it, that’s for sure.

So what have I learnt? Not much, I’d wager. Those 46 days weren’t too bad, once the hangover and guilt had dissipated. I know I can put together similar runs in the future, which is something I didn’t know three months ago. I hope my wild drinking bouts are over. But in reality I’m not sure. I think I will continue to drink for the rest of this year at least, it’s my 40th in November and I can’t imagine being dry for that, but beyond then, well I just don’t know. I have a feeling my drinking days are numbered, now. But that prospect doesn’t fill me with dread anymore. So maybe the end of the road is somewhere on the edge of the horizon.

Gaslight

One of the advantages of being sober so far in 2019 as it has given me more free time to focus on my writing and no excuses to slack off because I’m hungover. The mammoth edit of my novel was taking forever to complete, but after a couple of long evenings of re-writing, it’s finally done.

It’s come in at a shade over 200,000 words, which is about what I expected. My rough rule of thumb is that the first re-write should collapse the story by 10%, and I’m in the ballpark. Once the final draft is done I would expect it to run just under the 200K mark, but for now I’m in a position where I can start to force the manuscript on anyone who wants to read it (and maybe some of those who don’t!)

This is usually an exciting time and as the days pass I’m sure I’ll get more enthused about it, but right now I’m quite drained and tired. I started this journey in November 2016, so this has been the longest gestation period for a novel I’ve experienced, and it’s taken a fair bit out of me. I do still feel a sense of wonder that I sat down and started writing what I thought would be no more than a novella and ended up with this behemoth, but that’s part of what makes it a thrill. I never know where it’s going to end up, or if it’s going to go anywhere at all.

So over the next few weeks I’ll approach a few people and see if they want to read it, then once it’s out in the world, it’s no longer mine. Which is always a daunting prospect after being a part of it for so long.

And finally I have a title for the novel, which also forms the title of this post. Any regular readers will know I’ve been struggling with this for months, so it’s good to be able to put a face to a name so to speak. Hints at some of the themes of the book whilst also creating a sense of mystery.  It’s growing on me.  Hopefully the novel will have a similar effect on its first readers.

Dark Days and Drinking

In the writing game, the propensity for substance abuse appears to be higher than in other parts of society, particularly alcohol. A number of my favourite writers all had problems with the bottle – Stephen King, Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler to name but three. As King brilliantly articulates in On Writing, the idea that creative endeavour and booze or drugs are somehow connected and necessary in a world of emotional isolation and despair is a myth. Alcoholics drink because they are addicts, anything else is just another excuse.

Which brings me to my own battles with the booze. I’m obviously far from the standard of the legends I’ve mentioned, but I’ve used that excuse for my own excesses on occasion. And in the last few months the excesses are starting to get out of control. I drank heavily over the Christmas period, culminating in an ill-advised solo drinking session on New Years Eve which resulted in a substantial blackout period and one of the most savage hangovers I’ve ever experienced. I spent the first day of the year sleeping and puking and swallowed in a sea of self-loathing and guilt. Twenty six days later, I sit here and write, and I’m still sober.

I’ve been drinking for all the wrong reasons for a long time. It’s my fall back pastime when my mental health takes a tumble, which is the worst possible solution for that problem. When I’m bored, I drink. When I’m lonely, I drink. When I’m sad, I drink. When I can’t get the words down right, I drink. And on and on and on.  That my life is so much harder than anybody elses and I deserve to drink as some kind of a reward. It’s pathetic, really. I have friends with serious family stuff going on, life and death situations, and I get drunk because I feel I’m worthless as a writer or because I’m lonely. What a self-indulgent load of nonsense that is. Like I’m inviting the despair on to give me an excuse.

That’s not to say my mental health problems shouldn’t be acknowledged, far from it. But alcohol is not the way to do it. Once the fog cleared I made some enquiries and will hopefully be going back into therapy soon. I spent the best part of three years seeing somebody a decade ago and it really helped. More fool me for thinking I can do it on my own. And I’m sure that if I can keep my drinking under control my creative output should remain constant, and everything else will improve both physically and mentally.  I’m already sleeping better. My skin feels clearer. And its lovely to wake up in the morning without having to wonder how I got home. Simple pleasures.

It would be nice to get to the stage where I can enjoy a beer again, make it an occasional pleasure rather than a habit. If I can’t handle that, then it probably is time to give up for good. But I know now that I can’t go on as I have been, and that’s revelation enough.  I can not drink and be cleaner and happier, and still be able to write and live.

 

2018: The Reading Year

Another year, another failed reading challenge. After missing last year’s target I took 2018’s challenge down to 70 books, one I was sure I would make. Not a bit of it, only coming in at 63. Barely a book a week. Why? I have read a few doorsteps this year, but I’ve found my pace has slowed dramatically.  One book took me a fortnight to finish, which is unheard of. I know it’s only a yardstick and I shouldn’t let it get to me, but yeah, I’m disappointed to fail two years in succession. Sitting down to do this, I thought I might struggle to find 10 books to choose for this year. I haven’t felt that magic too much in 2018. However looking back there have been a few pearls among the oysters so let’s go, my top 10 books read in 2018.

Don Carpenter – Hard Rain Falling. I’ve had this book on my TBR for ages, and by chance, a friend lent it to me. It’s a stark and uncompromising novel of a down and out pool hustler on the streets of Portland, Oregon, and his friendship with a black runaway through a life of prison, hardship and bitterness. For a first novel it’s extraordinary, and along with the bleakness there are moments of quiet beauty that take the breath away.

Donald Ray Pollock – The Heavenly Table. If you like Southern Gothic grit, Pollock is your man. This tale of the three Jewett brother, cowboys cutting a swathe across the frontier, is lewd, crude, funny and jet-black dark. What’s not to love?

James Lee Burke – The Lost Get-Back Boogie. For some reason I’ve never read a Burke novel until this year, which was a terrible oversight considering I’m a crime fiend and Burke is one of the most popular out there. I was glad to rectify this in 2018, and this novel set in Montana was the best of them, a stunning tale of a man trying to fly right with beautiful descriptive passages and real heart.

Willy Vlautin – Don’t Skip Out On Me. A running theme on this blog is my love for Vlautin’s books. The greatest living writer in America, for me. If anything this book is his most heartbreaking (quite a feat if you’ve read any of his others!), just so painful and beautiful. Another masterpiece.

Michelle McNamara – I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. This book on the Golden State killer caused a sensation on its release, particularly as the suspect has now been arrested. It’s very sad that the author died before this moment, as her painstaking research and quiet desperation to find the killer did so much to keep the crimes in the spotlight, and she passed away before the arrest was made. This book is her legacy, and it’s a must for any true crime fan.

Christopher Hitchins – Hitch 22: A Memoir. Come on, it’s Hitch, all right? As ferocious and funny as you would expect from the great man.

Stephen King – IT. Unbelievably, I’d never read this or seen the films until this year. Obviously the clown stuff is iconic, but the novel takes you to deeper and darker places. I actually found a couple of plot strands very problematic, but the sheer invention and quality of the prose means I had to include it. Bloke’s a genius, let’s be honest.

Donald E. Westlake – Dancing Aztecs. No-one does screwball comedy better than Westlake, and this crime caper about a South American statue is brilliantly written and flat-out hilarious.

Kenneth Cook – Wake In Fright. I’m a huge fan of the film (as is Scorsese, if you need a better recommendation than me) and the book it is based on is equally as good. As disturbing, surreal, horrifying and hypnotic on the page as it is on screen.

Kazuo Ishiguro – Remains of the Day. Saving the best for last. My book of the year by a country mile. So haunting and beautiful. Ishiguro’s writing is perfection, as Stevens’s tale of life as a country butler unfolds in bittersweet tragedy. A worthy Booker winner and a reminder of how brilliant fiction can be. So glad to have read it.

So, a nice way to cap off 2018, with my best book of the year coming in its final stages. Hopes for 2019? To complete a reading challenge would be nice. I want to try to read some more voices from outside the Western world, too. My radar feels like it’s been a bit off this year, so hopefully I can sniff out the good stuff better as well. I turn 40 in 2019 so I’m about halfway through my reading life. So much read, but so much still out there. It’s that thought that drives me on.