My first typewriter was a portable Smith Corona, acquired second hand in 1968.
I had to thump the keys to make an impression, and insert Tippex paper to correct any mistakes. That was no easy task if I was also producing carbon copies. My most challenging project was to type up three copies of my husband’s MSc thesis on this primitive machine. By the end of it I knew all about glass ionomer cement and had a stinking headache and repetitive strain injury to boot.
I now find that such a machine is a period piece and has a certain monetary value! Maybe I should have kept it.
In the late 1980s I graduated to an electronic model. Still a typewriter with inked ribbon, but this time requiring a lighter touch and with the benefit of a single line display. A chance to review the last few words before they were printed. A real step forward.
It’s a recurring theme in Mirren’s house. Should we listen to our bodies and effectively hibernate in the winter? Or should we push through, toughen up and get out there? We know what we’d prefer. And then along comes a hint of Spring and the lengthening of the days. We wake up with the light, start sorting out the garden implements, and look forward to walking home from work once the threat of being run over in the ‘gloaming’ has passed.
We’re listening to our bodies and doing what comes naturally.
When it comes to writing, the muse was hiding during the depths of winter. Banished by any reasonable excuse or pressing other engagement, or preferably an early night.
Diane, one of the main characters in our first novel, Eight of Cups, suffered badly from the ‘Winter Blues’, withdrawing from herself and her family and getting deeper into depression as the months wore on. Here she is in October 1999, entering a particularly difficult phase of her life.
When people ask me (Mirren) what I do, I tend to say ‘I’m a Medical Practice Manager’ and sometimes I might add, ‘Oh, and I do a bit of writing too.’
As I begin to think about retiring from my day job, and concentrating more of my time and energies on writing, I wonder whether one day I’ll answer simply, ‘I’m a writer.’
The doubt resides in the question – What does being a writer actually mean?
That I am a published author? That I write books? That I spend the majority of my waking hours creating written pieces of work? Or that other people think my writing is good?
The facts are that with my co-author Elaine (Jones), I have had two non-fiction books published by a mainstream medical publisher, have independently published a debut novel and have another with a complete first draft. And still I wonder if I am a writer . . .!
It’s summer. The sky here in Perthshire is heavy with threatening rain clouds and we keep fingers crossed that the weekend will stay dry. It’s also the season for lists. That time of the year when the newspapers run out fresh ideas to fill their many column inches.
The concept of light has always been important to me. I love the sunlight, prefer being out of doors, hate the dark, and loathe the short winter days. From a recognised date in October, until the sun begins to return to this hemisphere, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder due to lack of light.
When it comes to writing and being productive, I can reflect back happily on two months during winter 2011, on mornings spent writing in Tenerife, after a leisurely cup of tea on the sun-bathed balcony. Eight weeks and a third of a book drafted, with still time to show visitors around, visit local markets, dine out on wonderful fresh fish and walk daily unencumbered by coat, hat or scarf.
The Canary Islands in winter are home to many creative snowbirds, headed south for the ideal conditions to live out their intended life.
The six girls in our debut novelEight of Cups came from far and wide. Their birthplaces shaped them, their University days in Edinburgh matured them, and their eventual homes both nurtured and challenged them.
But how to describe a place? And how to reflect how it might have been at the time of the action in the novel?
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!
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!
At a practice meeting recently, I asked fellow primary care team members to sum up their reactions in one word or phrase to our Practice Safety Questionnaire results. As is often the case, their responses took seconds but spoke volumes –
I’m glad we all think the same.
I was later reminded of the power of a few well-chosen words when reading and laughing at a scene in Karen Campbell’s novel ‘And This is Where I Am’.
When Somalian refugee Abdi asks a local Glasgow worthy how business is going, the aforementioned ‘Jimmy’ replies ‘Fair tae pish’!
And closer to home, when a friend enquired by text ‘and how are you?’ I found myself searching for that colourful phrase from my Dundonian grandmother’s rich fund of local dialect: glessy-ersed.
One of the discoveries Mirren and Jones made when collaborating on their first novel Eight of Cups was that Mirren enjoyed writing dialogue, while Jones was drawn more to descriptive prose.
So here’s one for Jones, from Mirren’s current bedtime reading – Your Blue Eyed Boy by Helen Dunmore.
The front door looks as if it’s been shut for ever. The windows peer, reflecting the dark sky, giving nothing out of what happens inside. A wave of senseless panic makes me fumble the car keys as I fit them into the lock. I won’t look back.