Room 101 first appeared in George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’. It was a torture chamber in the Ministry of Love in which the Party attempted to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia. The emphasis shifted in the BBC comedy television series Room 101 from facing fears to identifying and then consigning pet hates to a fate worse than death in Room 101.
Mirren is angry with herself this Saturday morning and has decided to work on that anger by identifying all the things that currently annoy her and then metaphorically locking them in Room 101, possibly never to be seen or experienced again.
Firstly goes that full bag of Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs greedily consumed yesterday evening after a hard day at work. No more combating tiredness with empty calories. They can stay there for at least the six weeks it apparently takes to change a habit (Do you really believe that?).
As former tutors, facilitators, mentors and coaches, we often find expressions from our consultancy days creeping into our writing. A threat becomes an opportunity. A weakness becomes an area for development.
The concept of reframing was introduced into Eight of Cups when Diane reflected on her relationship with her father.
‘Why did he put us through so much all those years? Why did he inflict his moods on us and make us all jumpy and on edge?
When reframed as – what did we do to help him? how could we have made his life happier, worked with him on his problems, whatever they were? – I had to face a second wave of grief‘
This week, Mirren herself has had a problem – or was it a challenge?
Although it is many, many years since I last sat an English Lit exam, the instruction to ‘compare and contrast’ can take me right back there. Knowing plenty about one of the pieces but not enough about the other! Trying to make what I did know, fit some kind of structure. Hoping that it wouldn’t be too obvious that most of the quotations came from the favoured text.
Two very different reads set in highly dissimilar contexts and yet the overriding feeling that remains is of having walked the road step by step with the author. William Stoner is a university professor in the 1930s-50s in Tennessee, initially amazed to find himself an academic when he had expected to return to his father’s small farm to continue to scratch a living. His life is in many ways low key and uneventful; he is probably forgotten very quickly once he hangs up his gown. And yet his acceptance of a life full of disappointment and sadness is quietly inspiring and laudable.
According to Chinese Astrology, the Year of the Horse (one of 12 signs of the Zodiac) begins today and will end on 18th February 2015. I have to say I’m rather excited about this for a number of reasons:
a) born in 1954 my birthday falls under the sign of the horse;
b) one of the occupations in my portfolio working life is as a horse whisperer – working with people and their horses to improve communication and performance (see www.clocktowerstud.co.uk for more details);
c) I spend a lot of my life with my own horses and ponies; riding, training, and generally ‘hanging out’. Horses have been a passion since I could first walk and talk;
d) hopefully we will see plenty of literary references in the media to the horse this year;
e) Chinese astrologers are recommending that people born under the sign of the horse who will be 60 during the year should have a big party ‘to balance the luck’. Well, I’m all for that, given that I was too ill on my 50th to get out of bed, let alone go party!
What characteristics are people born in The Year of the Horse supposed to possess? Let’s consider the positive ones first: they will be ‘sanguine, sharp-minded, dress fashionably, gifted with a silver tongue and have acute insight . . .engaged in intellectual activities and sports’. All true of course! And the negative ones? Well, never mind about those . . .
Mirren and I like astrology and believe it has some merit both in our lives and for our writing.
We find it useful, for example, in working up characterisations.
Seeing situations in another light seems to be a theme this week. I have just finished reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon who writes with the voice of a boy with autism. He taught me that hating brown and yellow is really no different from having favourite colours like blue and green. And that having a strategy to cut out extraneous and disturbing noise makes logical sense – even if his is not the one I might use.
Then Richard Rohr in his daily meditation which arrives by text each morning, pointed out our human tendency to feel right and special only by making others wrong or lesser in some way. We handle paradox very badly and so remain cut off from much of the spiritual richness of life.
And today in an Angela Jeffs’ workshop on Proprioceptive Writing , I learned that writing from a relaxed and meditative mind can free up imagination and allow an authentic voice to emerge.
So I am keen to see how that different light, which has hopefully rebooted my conscious and subconscious in several ways, will affect my writing this week.
And if you haven’t read In Another Light by Andrew Greig, check it out. I loved it, Jones didn’t – we don’t always see things in the same light!
And Maureen, Kathleen and Corrine. Let’s also have Mary, Margaret and Marilyn. And of course Dougie, Jimmy and Billy. Without forgetting Theresa, Kevin and Gerard. Ah, those names from the 50s and 60s.
And here’s what they might have been wearing.
When Jones and I were building our characters for Eight of Cups, we had a real trip down memory lane sharing names from our schooldays. Jones contributed a few Welsh ones of course – Bethan and Beti. I had my Morags and Ionas. In the end we plumped for Patricia, Diane, Lesley, Alix (previously known as Sandra but socially climbing by the time we met her), Nancy and Carys. Their bell-bottomed, flowery shirted male friends were Michael, Willie, Gerald, Nick, Trevor and JJ (the American one).
Now, however, if we end up writing about their grandchildren, we’ll have go for Kaitlin, Naeve, India, Amber, Lewis, Sonny and Buzz!
Working with friends on ideas for this year’s Bookmark Festival in Blairgowrie, we chatted about fantasy writing. My problem with that genre is often focused on struggling with the characters’ names, finding it difficult to remember who is who. But I’d never pondered how the author comes up with the names in the first place. Bruce Crichton gave me some tips:
Yesterday, I had a surreal experience. While dragging myself round a typical Saturday’s chores, I was waiting for the tumble dryer to complete a 10 minute towel softening stint, when my eye was caught by an adjacent bookshelf. My tumble dryer is located in a cupboard on the upstairs landing – a multi-purpose storage area, home to a mini Chinese laundry, innumerable boxes of family photos, a spare uncomfortable futon for the foolhardy who’ve imbibed one too many, and loads of books gathered over the years, and shelved in no particular order. Or are they? I was taken aback, and taken back through the years by an apparently random shelf of books which seemed to encapsulate the key periods and interests of my lifetime.
Heidi by Joanna Spyri – the mountains in summer, the wildflowers, the alpine hut, sleeping on a bed of straw. It was a far cry from a life in a Dundee suburb, one of my very first loves and prompted a detour to visit Heidi-land while in Switzerland a few years ago.
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – a school reader, and the first novel to touch an invisible place where roots, primeval attachment and a burgeoning sense of identity lay. One of the few books I have returned to several times over the years.
Across the Great Divide by Jim Wilkie – a history of professional football in Dundee, evoking memories of pride, excitement and quality time spent at Dens Park with my late father every second Saturday from age 10 to 18.
This year, and from now on, instead of moaning about being too busy, I am resolved to use my time more wisely and for better quality outcomes. For example, I am no longer wearing anything that I don’t like or doesn’t do me any favours – and I don’t care if I have spent good money on an item or if the result is that I am left with very few sartorial options – I am more interested in dressing quickly and not dithering in front of the mirror debating with myself what to wear, trying on and taking off the many impulse buys current residing in my wardrobe. Likewise, I am not wasting time reading anything unedifying, or poorly written. With all those wonderful books out there? It would be madness.
It was reading and revelling in And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini’s latest book, which prompted this latest lifestyle decision. I had refrained from buying it, and particularly from downloading it on to my Kindle, in the hope and belief that someone (with a big hint from me) would present me with the book for Christmas. My daughter – and the book – did not disappoint. I have spent a typically reclusive festive season delighting in the quality of his story-telling.
In contrast, I picked up while shopping in a certain supermarket, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s not a bad story. Two sisters with certain psychic powers, one who is open about the fact, and the other who denies it – but it fails to charm, inspire or engage.
The challenge is to determine just what is the difference in the way these two writers put words on paper. Does Hosseini write a basic story and then work on improving his use of language and enriching the quality of his exposition? Or does his mind work such that he produces quality straight off? Sittenfeld can construct a decent story. So can Mirren Jones. But can either of us create a literary experience I wonder?
We’re currently trying to complete the basic storyline of Never Do Harm. And then the task will be to transform it into an experience. That will be a true quality outcome.
Mirren and Jones frequently post reviews on Goodreads. Sometimes it is weeks after finishing a book that we get round to expressing our views, and it is interesting to reflect on that process. Speaking for myself (Mirren), I often find that I am left with a lasting impression rather than an accurate memory of the content of a novel, and want to express that impression in terms of a feeling or emotional memory. For example, Helen Dunmore’s book ‘Your Blue Eyed Boy’ has an arresting prologue. Its words captured my interest and imagination immediately, and that gut response has remained with me. Here is what she had to say about blackmail.
Blackmail doesn’t work the way I always thought it would, if I ever gave it a thought. It doesn’t smash through the clean pane of life like a stone through a window. It’s always an inside job, the most intimate of crimes. Somebody in the house has left that little window open, just a snick. The person who leaves it open doesn’t know why. Or else doesn’t want to know. From outside a hand reaches into the gap, and the window creaks wide. Cold air comes rushing in. I see that hand now, each time I shut my eyes to sleep.
In our second novel (in-progress), Never Do Harm, we have tried to grab the reader’s interest and create commitment to read further with our introductory chapter. See what you think. Here are the first few lines as a taster.
It’s an everyday situation for her.
Again and again until demand, or luck, runs out.
Today it’s the same bar as yesterday. Bar Caravelle on Rue de la Partigon. Nothing fancy. And it’s the same drink as yesterday too – vodka, with just a splash of water. It warms her up, and after a few she begins to feel numb, and that’s good, it helps with whatever follows.
Mirren was delighted but not surprised to hear that a study, published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, had found striking differences between the ways that men’s and women’s brains are wired to work.
The study reported that on average men are more likely to be better at learning and performing a single task, such as navigating.
Women, meanwhile, were more likely to have superior memory and social cognition skills — making them better equipped for multi-tasking and creating solutions which could work for a group.
During a typical morning at her day job while dealing with emails, and using the time management principle of not handling the same metaphorical piece of paper twice, Mirren engages with a bewildering variety of topics. She performs the necessary actions of replying, phoning, following up, filing, checking, summarising, forwarding and best of all – binning – all the while operating an open door policy liberally used by staff requiring answers to a myriad of questions, all likely to begin with one of the following phrases
Where is …?
Do you remember what we were going to do about …?
Can I…? and
Would you mind just ….?
Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, her monkey mind is still roving the territory of medical practice. Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamouring for attention. Fear is an especially loud monkey, sounding the alarm incessantly, pointing out all the things we should be wary of and everything that could go wrong.
None of this internal chattering, worrying and replaying of the day helps when it comes to switching to her other life as a writer.
So what to do?
Up in The Isle of Lewis, when working on debut novel Eight of Cups, Mirren would go for a 45 minute walk every morning after breakfast. In a place where you can literally hear no sound other than nature (often the battering of the rain on the road!) she found the interlude helped her empty and still her monkey mind, and allow the germination and rumination of creative ideas.
Now living in Strathmore, and particularly at this time of the year, she stays in the warmth of her writing shed and practises a yoga breathing technique, concentrating solely on that one thing – no multi-tasking. And hopefully banishing the monkey mind!