One Year On

Today marks a significant anniversary for me. It’s exactly one year since I left the safe harbour of my nice, secure, well-paid but ultimately unfulfilling office job, and threw myself upon the tempestuous waters of full-time writing. In some ways the year seems to have gone by quickly, in other ways it feels like I’ve been doing this forever.

How’s it gone? Well, I’ve soon got used to the no-alarm-clock lifestyle, and I haven’t struggled with boredom or lack of motivation. I’m progressing well with my new book, The Silvergreen Sea. No publishing deal as yet but my synopsis and first three chapters are currently out on submission. And I’ve got an – albeit unpaid – tutoring gig at Swanwick writers’ summer school on 10th August http://www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk/ So it’s not fireworks-and-champagne but all told, I’m satisfied. And have I ever regretted my decision to take the plunge? Not for one nanosecond.

Of course, not everything has gone smoothly. Getting a part-time job hasn’t really worked out – I’ve had to quit Clarks after three months because I found it impossible to juggle the unpredictable shifts with my writing, family, and social commitments. And my internet addiction is as bad as ever… my spell of cold turkey last summer completely failed to fix that problem. Oh well, it’s the malaise of modern life I suppose (she writes on the internet).

Occasionally I’ll catch myself moaning or stressing about something, and have to remind myself that I’m incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to devote myself fully to writing. Maybe I won’t ever catch my dreams, but at least I have the chance to chase them. When I quit my job last year, one of my colleagues said to me ‘You should do what you want to do. After all, you’re a long time staring at the wood.’ Last week, his words were very painfully brought home to me when I learned that another colleague – who this time last year seemed absolutely fine – has just died of lung cancer.

Nothing like the spectre of mortality to make you appreciate what you’ve got. So I will raise a glass to Steve – may he rest in peace – and feel grateful for a good year.

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In Search of Lost Remembrance

This blog post contains spoilers for In Search of Lost Time. If that’s a thing.

Back at the very tail end of 2012, I decided that my 2013 reading project would be Marcel Proust’s elephantine seven-volume masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu, known in English as either Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time – the title, as I would find, not being the only thing about it that’s difficult to get hold of. At the point of embarking on the first volume, Swann’s Way, my knowledge of the work was restricted to ‘something about cakes’ and the Monty Python sketch featuring the All-England Summarise Proust Competition. But I plunged in, intending to finish the whole lot by the end of the year.

Last weekend, I finally finished reading the final volume, Time Regained. So that’s only 7 ½ months behind schedule, which, considering how long it took Proust to write (13 years, and he wasn’t done with it when he died) ain’t bad going. And now, I can officially join the club of People Who Have Read Proust, the literary equivalent of completing the Ironman, but much less sweaty.

What’s the verdict? Well, mixed. Proust has his moments, for sure: his elegiac imagery, his memorable character portraits, his musings on such themes of memory, mortality, and the essential impossibility of truly knowing the mind of another. But boy, could he have used a swingeing edit. The seven-part novel is not only extremely long – over 1.2 million words in the original French – it’s also rambling, repetitive, and hopelessly self-indulgent. Better readers than I have given up in frustration when they realise that, yes, fifty pages later, he’s still going on about his bedroom ceiling. The narrator/main character – who is basically Proust himself – is not terribly sympathetic: whiny, lazy, self-absorbed and extremely jealous, he spends all his time stalking women or young girls, complaining (ironically) about writer’s block, and trying to worm his way into high society. The concept of doing anything actually useful with his life doesn’t occur to him until the final volume, and even then it’s only to capture his flashes of involuntary memory caused by madeleines and uneven paving slabs for the benefit of posterity. I spent much of Books 4 & 5 hoping that his girlfriend, the long-suffering Albertine, would give him a slap round the face and tell him to get over himself. Sadly, she never does.

Much more sympathetic is Charles Swann, father of the narrator’s first love, and hero of his own novella included within the first volume. A wealthy assimilated Jew who has made an unwise marriage, his position is both exalted and insecure, especially once the Dreyfus Affair exposes the tensions and underlying antisemitism in French society. The scene near the end of Book 3 where he, terminally ill and passionate about politics, is contrasted with his friends the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, caring only about the party they’re going to, is probably the most affecting in the entire novel. In many ways his is a much more interesting story than the narrator’s, and if you want to read it, I recommend The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which is both excellent and quite short.

In Search of Lost Time is easy to make fun of, less easy to read. As a book, it makes no concessions to the reader, expecting you to keep up with the narrator’s endless asides, and remember every detail about a character you last met a thousand pages ago. The plot proceeds at a pace of about one event per volume. It’s not what you’d call a page-turner. But having got to the end, I can say that I’m glad I’ve read it, experienced a unique voice, a key work in world literature and the development of the modern novel. I probably won’t ever read it again, but I think certain images and moments will stay with me forever. So I’ll drink a lime-blossom tea to that, and proceed with the next reading challenge.

In a fortnight’s time, I’ll be at the Fantasy Convention in York, so I’ll be updating this blog on Monday 8th September with my latest thoughts…

Wikipedia on the Dreyfus Affair: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_affair

A Leap of Faith

You may remember previous mentions on this blog of developments which were taking their time to develop. Well, they’re finally finished (I nearly put an elaborate analogy here about photographs, chemical baths, and dark rooms until it occurred to me that nobody under the age of 25 would know what I was talking about). No, I haven’t got that 3-book deal, but I am taking a bold step towards becoming a proper writer – yes, I’m giving up the day job.

Why now? After all, I don’t yet have a publisher, nor any sort of income stream from writing, so I’m taking a leap of faith, hoping that things will work out so I’ll be able to write all day and still pay the bills. Well, there’s nothing like an extended period of sickness to give you a new perspective and make you re-evaluate your priorities. When you can barely move, being able to afford a ski holiday suddenly seems a whole lot less important. So when, shortly after getting back to work, my employer announced a programme of voluntary redundancy, something clicked. Maybe, I thought, it’s finally time to make a real proper go of this writing thing, and that severance payment will provide a crash mat.

And so, by this time next week, I’ll have left my career in project management behind, and devoted myself to my hobby instead. Right now, I’m about 1/3 excited, 1/3 terrified, and 1/3 still in denial. I’m ecstatic at the thought of not having to get up early in the morning, of being able to spend as much time as I like doing what I love, of being able to wear my pyjamas until 4pm if I want to, of being able to tell people ‘I’m a writer’ and for it to actually be true… but then, if publication remains elusive, perhaps ‘writer’ will be a less accurate description than ‘unemployed person’ or, seeing as we’ll be living off my husband’s salary, ‘housewife’.

It might not work out. I might never become a ‘proper’ writer with books in the shops and royalties in my bank account. But I figure it’s worth a try. I’m allowing myself a couple of years to give it my best shot (health permitting) – even if I get nowhere near publication, I should be able to write one, two, or even three books in half the space of time The Heartland of the Winter took, so I’ll have something to (I hope!) be proud of. And, in the somewhat morbid words of one my former colleagues when I told him about my decision, ‘You should do what you want to do. After all, you’re a long time staring at the wood.’