My little black book

These days when I want to make an arrangement with someone they take out their phone and start finger skating on the screen. Meanwhile I’m leafing through my little appointments diary, pen poised, looking terribly 20th century.

But this lady is not for modernising. The scribbled notes of today are my memory bank for the future. Unlike the data entered into a device, one day I will be able to find that diary at the back of a drawer and step into my everyday life in a given year. It will all come back to me – the old car that kept breaking down, my brief flirtation with jogging, a friendship that has since lapsed. In among the mundane details I might find a little gem like the day the baby took her first steps.

For me a small appointments diary is sufficient to keep a basic narrative and it helps me feel things are not slipping away from me – funny things my kids say, what I planted in the garden, friends invited for dinner. Space is limited but the fact of keeping a record is important. There’s also the memorabilia hiding between the pages, ticket stubs and to do lists that are treasure for a nostalgia nut like me.

At the moment my diary is punctuated with notes on writing submissions and rejections. For the past year or so, I’ve always had at least one piece of work out there, keeping the thread of optimism unbroken. When a response comes with the word ‘unfortunately’ in the first line, I sigh a few times and then make a note of it. This little action allows me to claim the result and draw a line under it – or through it if I’m feeling peevish.

Not to worry, there’s another open submission in the diary somewhere, and anything is possible.

Writing lessons from Charles Dickens

Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank
Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank

The first draft of a story is just the raw material, right? It will need to be revised, reworked, perhaps even radically overhauled, word by word, plot hole by plot hole. This is the fall back that makes writing a slightly less daunting endeavour. Thankfully everything you put down can later be improved, reordered or deleted.

That is the stage I am at now, trying to enhance my novel to the best of my abilities – and there’s a lot more work to do. But once in a while, a writer of genius come along who breaks all the rules, someone like the giant of 19th century English fiction Charles Dickens.

Last year being the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth there was a lot of Dickens talk and I happened to hear a radio discussion about the great writer in which one of the experts named Our Mutual Friend as the author’s best book. It had been years since I’d picked up a Dickens novel but he’s always been close to my heart. My grandmother, who shared my childhood home, was a lifelong Dickens fan and was always willing to read to us.

So I got my hands on a copy and tackled the near 800-page opus. At the back I was delighted to discover Dickens’ plot plans and notes included. It’s a fascinating insight into his working method and brain. He had worked out (monthly) number by number how the action would unfold, weaving all the storylines together and leading his characters on a merry dance through to conclusion.

Courtesy of Claire Tomalin’s suberb biography – Charles Dickens A Life – which I’m currently reading, I have discovered a lot more about Dickens. From the very beginning Dickens did not have the luxury of letting his stories evolve organically as they were serialised in monthly or weekly issues. Tomlin quotes Dickens as saying: “My friends told me it was a low cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes”. He triumphantly proved them wrong.

For ten months in 1837 two of his serial stories, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, ran simultaneously. Dickens was producing the chapters for two different publishers and coordinating with two illustrators – an incredible juggling act, on top of which he was also editing and contributing to a monthly magazine Bentley’s Miscellany.

“Managing this double feat was an unprecedented and amazing achievement. Everything had to be planned in his head in advance. Pickwick had started as a series of loosely rambling episodes, but he was now introducing plot … and Oliver was tightly plotted and shaped from the start. There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right the first time. … Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. In practice this did not always work out as well as he hoped, and although he sometimes got ahead, there were many months when he only just managed to get his copy to the printer in time.”

Just four years earlier, aged 21, his first piece of non-journalistic writing was published – a ‘sketch’ or short story, published anonymously and for no fee in a very small circulation magazine called the Monthly. He remembered dropped in his offering “stealthily one evening at twilight” after the place had closed. The sketch was followed by many more and led to fame within months and a 30-year stellar career.

We cannot watch fly-on-the-wall documentaries about life in Victorian England but we do have Dickens, who transposed so many of the characters and everyday scenes around him into his work. The people loved him for his crusade against the appalling social injustice of the day and we still have the privilege of learning from the great master of storytelling.

Green light for return to Ireland

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In the author description of Douglas Kennedy’s latest book Five Days, we are told that the writer divides his time between London, Paris, Berlin, Maine and Montreal. Is he serious? You have to wonder what kind of lifestyle that involves. A lot of fridges to clear and restock.

Most of us are confined to one geographical base at a time but that doesn’t mean we don’t dream of other possibilities. Last year I met an Eritrean refugee who risked his life crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean, mournfully reconciled to living in Switzerland, while longing to go back home.

A lucky few have holiday homes and can shuttle between two different lifestyles and even climates. Wealthy Northern Europeans love to buy up properties in Spain, France and Italy. You can only admire their good sense.

This year I will be ‘dividing my time’ between Switzerland and Ireland, leaving Switzerland in August, ten years to the day since I arrived here to live, and staying on in Dublin until Christmas. The germ for this idea came around a year ago and the trip has come together thanks to a little serendipity and perseverance.

Last summer I had a conversation with my sister about my wish to live in Ireland again someday. Working out when my youngest child would be independent, I reckoned I could possibly arrange something around the age of sixty. This reflection shocked me to the core and started me thinking.

A short time before that on a flight from Dublin to Geneva I met an Irish woman who had lived in France for 20 years. She was married to a Frenchman and they had four daughters together. She told me she had twice moved with the children to Ireland for a school year, staying in her old family home. She was able to keep up her small travel business from Dublin and her husband, a teacher, used all his holiday time to visit them.

Moving forward to the end of last summer, one of my colleagues went to Florence for six weeks to do an Italian course, thanks to a creativity fund in work. I found out more about the fund that supports employees wishing to pursue various projects.

Now it just so happened that I had a very active creative project in progress – writing my first novel. I looked at courses in the Irish Writers’ Centre and found one that would be ideal for me. Everything was telling me to seize the moment.

My funding application was finally approved last week and I went ahead and booked the flights. What I have gained is the most precious thing of all – time. Time to write, time to spend with friends and family, time for my children to get to know their origins and time off from being a foreigner.

Wish me luck!

Two blooms for a penny

Four months ago I finished the first draft of my first novel. Finally I had kept my perennial New Year’s resolution – not just to write something but to finish something. This meant putting aside two to three writing sessions a week, taking my idea and pursuing it to the air-punching end. Now being a good aspiring writer I had read up on what should happen next and I dutifully left my manuscript to settle. I knew I was supposed to get some distance and tackle it again with fresh eyes after a break. But breaking my writing stride like that was quite difficult. There was suddenly a void. Like a jogger used to running regularly, I was itching to put on my trainers again and get out there. I missed the writing process and the material itself. I started reaching for the manuscript and tinkering around with a red pen. It was way too soon.

Then a colleague of mine went on a journalism assignment to India. She set up a blog for her trip and hey presto we could all follow what she was doing. And though I’d never been drawn to blogging before, I realised that this was the next logical step for me and definitely worth a try. I was amazed by how easy it was to set up on WordPress and how soon everything fell into place. My first post Unrequited Spite was also my first short story ever to be read by the outside world. A small number of bloggers “liked” it – people I’d never heard of – and I felt encouraged.

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Blogging could be seen as the modern day equivalent of rushing up to people on a busy street with print outs of your work and thrusting the pamphlets into their hands. I remember people doing this in Dublin when I was young. But of course not all people have that zeal. Some, like myself, are more at ease standing in a quiet side street, patiently waiting for the right passer-by to come along, occasionally calling out ‘two blooms for a penny’.

Since I started blogging I have discovered a host of interesting people, some similar to me, others whose lives are a million miles removed from mine. It’s been an eye opener. I’m very grateful to regular visitors like the inspiring 5kidswithdisabilities and the adventurous lesleycarter for their interest and encouragement. In terms of visitors, two recent posts which were picked up by a site for the Irish diaspora http://www.worldirish.com brought a big spike in my viewing statistics. It was nice to reach a wider audience without having to shout at the top of my lungs.

The time has now come for me to put some serious work into the novel again and apply some of the editing advice I received, especially the valuable input from fellow WordPress writer beanmimo. I’m also going to focus a bit more on submitting for publication. But I still think there’s a place for this blog. There’s a debate about whether writers should bother with blogging. From a numbers point of view it might not be the best use of resources but like many other pastimes, the bottom line is do it if you enjoy it. For me the freedom of expression is the main attraction. Anyone else tempted to start? And for those already blogging – what keeps you posting?

A new start in life, aged five

Do you know any five year olds? Imagine a little boy whose daily struggle to survive was so hard, he agreed to go away with a passing stranger for a chance at a new life. His name is Kam Moung and he comes from Myanmar (formerly Burma) in Southeast Asia.

Despite the heart-breaking choice made by this child, his story is a happy one. He has found security and acceptance in neighbouring Thailand in a school and orphanage set up specially for ethnic Shan refugees. His dream is to go back some day to his mother and his village and to travel around his homeland as a big music star.

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In the meantime, Kam Moung is thriving in his new home. He is an excellent student and has won everyone over with his generous and bubbly personality.

A colleague of mine from swissinfo.ch, Luigi Jorio, introduced me to Kam Moung in the form of a book he had written with Mathias Froidevaux about the child and the plight of Shan refugees. Luigi discovered the school in 2010 and by chance arrived on the same day as Kam Moung, the perfect starting point for a story. I was only too happy to help out with the English translation.

The school and orphanage were set up by the young monk Noom Hkurh who himself fled Myanmar as a child after his village was burned to the ground. After getting an education in Thailand, he wanted to provide a caring home and safe place to study for orphans and other poor children to avoid the possibility of them being exploited or abused.

Last month, Luigi was able to return to Kam Moung’s school with copies of his book. Packed with photos and illustrations, the book will serve as a unique teaching tool. These stateless children will start English lessons with material written about their own lives.

More about the project here:
http://www.kam-moung.ch/index.php?id=10&L=1