Easing Back into the Stream

It’s been ten weeks since I moved into my cottage, and I’m finally slowing down and getting back into a normal routine. I’ve had fun unpacking all my treasures from the past, buying some new ones, and making others to suit my new environment. In the meantime, work has carried on like a steady underflow beneath it all, satisfying my need to earn and more importantly, underlining my need to belong and carve my own path.

Winter has set in with a vengeance and my cottage is cold, to say the least. Fortunately I have two heaters and an electric blanket. I look forward to the warmer months, when I intend to expand onto the veranda which is the perfect space for writing. There are brackets on which I can hang pots of flowering plants, and my view across the garden will be enhanced by a light breeze coming up the hill instead of the winter frost, mist, and ice on my car windows each morning.

In the meantime I have hung two sets of wind chimes out there on my veranda, and the sound – as always – comforts me and reminds me of places far away and friends left behind.

Five years ago I stood at the top of a hill in KwaZulu-Natal, listening to wind chimes at the Culamoya Chimes factory and shop on the Midlands Meander with my friends Tina and Jackie. I decided on a beautiful, melodic, deep-toned one. When I packed up three years ago, it came too.

On another occasion, at The Ugly Duckling in Rosetta, in another part of the Midlands Meander, I stood on a rise with my friend Tina while Jackie was riding in a cycle race. Together we listened to the various bamboo chimes before I made my decision. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to bring bamboo into Australia, so I gave that one to Tina before I left.

Last week I found a set of bamboo wind chimes here in Australia, at Ishka, and bought it. It doesn’t have the same melodic tone, but it’s rustic and cheerful and the clackety-clack sound it makes is pleasing to my ears because it reminds me of my friends.

Life goes on, and we move with the currents and tides. Part of me thinks about the final line of The Great Gatsby, but the rest of me knows that I’m not beating against the current; I’m easing out into the stream to claim my place in the flow, and taking bits of my past with me.

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Full Circle Flashbacks

One of the shreds of hope you cling to when packing up your whole life to move to another country, is the belief that one day you will get the chance to unpack it all in a new home. For me, this wheel has finally turned full circle.

Three years on, I have spent the last month unpacking my boxes, vac-bags and plastic crates into my new little cottage in the country. It’s been like Christmas. Each layer of bubble wrap unfurled has revealed treasures: some longed for, some forgotten and some only dreamed about, thinking they had been left behind.

Perhaps the most exciting boxes to unpack were those which bore the legend “Packed by Penny” on my inventory list. Three years ago, my friend Penny came to my rescue a few days before the dreaded container arrived. I waved one hand vaguely at a table top covered with teapots and general kitchen ware, and the other hand at the remnants of a display cabinet, and muttered something incoherent about wanting to take all those things with me but not knowing where to pack them. Penny did the job, and expertly too. Not a single thing chipped or broken, all of my treasures restored to me in my new little cottage, one by one.

Thank you, Penny.

 

Thank you, Tina and Bryan, for helping me on loading day, and treating me to breakfast afterwards. As you know, I couldn’t have got through that day without you.

Another special thank you to my wonderful friends Cathy and Jackie, who helped me to pack up and distribute the things that didn’t fit into that little Move Cube container three years ago. Without these wonderful ladies, I’d probably still be sitting in a tearful heap in the middle of my old cottage, unable to decide what to pack and what to leave. Cathy air freighted me two boxes of favourites without which I would have been bereft.

In the last two years or so, I may have gone a little overboard in seeking out and buying up oddments found in Op Shops to replace things I didn’t bring. I’ve searched for – and found – several pieces of Corning ware – rare as hen’s teeth since I gave all mine away. I’ve searched for – but not found – a set of stainless steel steamer pots. No matter, I made a plan with a universal steamer basket and a metal sieve. Last night’s sweet potato and rice cooked up just as tastily in the new equipment as it would have done in the old.

My new cottage is looking good now, snug and warm with new net curtains and the roll-up blinds I’ve made to keep out the winter cold. There are still a few things to unpack, but it’s a pleasure, not a chore, and I’m enjoying the process.

One day I’ll get back to writing again, but first I need a little time to revel in the fun of making a home in my new place.

A Cottage in the Country

Two weeks ago today, I answered an ad for a granny cottage. It was partly furnished and sounded perfect. I was able to go and see it that morning and everything about it felt good. The owners are a friendly, generous retired couple and I liked them both immediately. We shook hands on the deal and arranged that I would start to move in three days later, when my sister, brother-in-law and I all had the day off.

That Thursday was a long process and involved the hire of a vehicle to transport the larger pieces of furniture – my grandfather’s hand-carved dining table, the big book case my father made for me nearly forty years ago, and two tall solid wooden bookcases that I wouldn’t go anywhere without.

We also began to move my smaller pieces of furniture, and some of the boxes, in three cars. That carefully packed Move Cube I loaded with such precision three years ago contained a lot more stuff than most people would imagine. Somehow, when you are saying goodbye to the only life you’ve ever known, and the country of your birth, you manage to squeeze a lot of stuff into the available space, in the hope of replicating at least part of that familiar life, in a new country.

I guess most humans gather more stuff over time than they think they have, and I’m no exception. Despite the fact that I’ve been living in a room in my sister’s house for three years, I’ve managed to acquire rather a lot of things.

The next two days were spent at work, with a bit of cleaning and measuring of the new cottage to make sure I knew where everything would fit. I don’t like to shuffle it around physically, so I do it all on paper first to get the right fit. Scale drawings are second nature to me after a lifetime spent in the theatre.

Three days later we all had Sunday off, and the rest of the stuff was moved in the cars. The last two items to move were the most precious of all – my two cats. I unloaded them into their new home after dark, plied them with catnip and food, and waited while they sniffed, ran around and eventually settled down to sleep on the familiar duvet covering my bed.

By last night – a week after that final move – most of my books had been unpacked and my new place was looking like the home I always imagined I would have here in Australia. It’s a medium sized cottage on a large property, just on the edge of horse country, and yet only twenty minutes away from work.

All five houses in this lane are old and huge, and the neighbourhood is quiet. The trees are tall and the birds are gloriously noisy. A cottage in the country is what I have always wanted, and it’s what I’ve got.

Soon I will have no excuse not to pick up my novel and write…

Light at the End of A Very Long Tunnel

Six weeks ago, the veggie shop where I used to work closed down. The following day I called my boss at my other casual job in the hardware store to tell her that I was available for more shifts. She responded immediately with more shifts to keep the proverbial wolf from my door.

Three weeks later, inspired by this, I broached the subject of part time employment, letting her know that I was definitely interested in something more permanent, should such a position ever become available. Once again she responded positively, offering me a 30-hour per week contract. I signed that contract the next day, and my new position started the following week.

So for two weeks I’ve been doing what I’ve been trying to do for the past year and a half: working most of the week at a job I enjoy, and for a steady, assured income. That hypothetical express train I wrote of last month – the one that Julia Cameron describes in The Artist’s Way – is speeding up and delivering the goods.

At last there’s light breaking through at the end of this long, long tunnel!

Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends…

For a short month, February has been rather busy. The first ten days played out as normal, with me still gainfully employed at the fruit and veggie shop. On the eleventh day, however, it all took an interesting turn. I arrived at the shop one Sunday morning to be told that the store was closing, and that day was its last.

In retrospect, I had seen it coming but tried to pretend that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. My boss had dropped broad hints for a few months that the shop might not last far into the New Year. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but I didn’t expect it all to go belly-up in one single day without any notice.

So where does this leave me? Well fortunately my casual job at the hardware store is going well. For the moment. My boss there has been extremely helpful in giving me extra shifts, which I love, but I know it won’t continue in this way much beyond Easter. As the weather cools towards winter, the DIY industry cools down too, for the cold months, before perking up again in springtime.

Which brings me to Henry V’s rallying cry to his troops. Once more I am launching myself into that daunting battlefield known as the job market, steeling my nerves to be cut down by cold-as-steel rejection letters, even as I leap forward to grasp at the slim chance of landing the perfect job

As much as I love my job in the hardware store, I need another part-time job to enable me to finally break out of my dependence on my long-suffering family and be on my own again. With this comes another problem: my novel-writing has ground to an abrupt halt while I concentrate my writing energies on writing and rewriting my cover letters and tweaking my resume.

I’m not drowning yet, but it is a definite setback in my plans to live my life fully in Australia. Three years ago I was packing and planning my move over here, uncertain of my future. Three years later I’m still adrift in a sea of uncertainty, treading water, and getting older while not really moving forward.

I’ve been in Australia for two years and eight months now, but it’s only in the past eight months that I seem to have moved forward. And now, just when things are gathering pace, this is a giant leap backwards.

Sometimes, I can’t help but compare my current situation (or lack thereof) with the one I left behind in South Africa. It’s a terrible thing to be without work for two years, and a truly marvellous thing to have been gainfully employed for the past eight months. Eight months ago I was beginning to despair of getting a job – any kind of job – and wondered if I would ever be able to gather some resources and move into my own place without constantly draining resources that were not mine.

Would I ever be able to afford exorbitant Melbourne rentals, buy my own car, save some money for my old age? Even little pleasures like splashing out on tea and cake with a friend seemed extravagant, always mentally counting the South African rands that were fast dwindling away at ten times the rate they would have done back in Durban. Steady income goes a long way towards alleviating those worries, and that’s what I’m working towards now.

Eight months ago I made a start, and it’s been chugging along nicely. I have some Australian dollars in the bank at last. But now it seems as if I have some very steep hills to climb, because I’m not yet where I want to be. I have to keep reminding myself that Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, likens this to being on a fast-moving train. While walking along inside a train, stumbling over objects and stepping back to let others pass, we feel as if we are barely moving. And yet, when we look out the window and see how far we’ve come, with new scenery racing by at breakneck speed, we realise that we are, in fact, covering ground extremely fast.

I hope it’s not just my advancing years which are thundering by at that speed…

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 12: The Benefits of A Break

On this final day of the first month of 2018, I’m happy to announce that I spent part of that month re-acquainting myself with my partially-written novel.

I returned to my WIP on the second day of January, unsure how to approach a project I hadn’t touched since mid-April last year. I knew there were problems with this draft. At just over 50,000 words, I had only written about half of the actual story, so it lacked both pace and progression. I had thrown far too many words into it during the previous November’s NaNoWriMo, but with that long over, how was I to fix things?

After perusing my original synopsis and outline, I decided the best thing to do was to see what I already had and make notes about what worked and what didn’t work. So I began a read-through with minor edits. If something jumped out at me in a bad way and was small enough to tweak, I tweaked. If it needed major surgery, it was highlighted in red on my corresponding outline. I had already started a list of things to fix the previous April, and this list now expanded as I read.

I’ve worked my way through about half of the text so far, working on it when I can, and trying not to leave long gaps between the days on which I tackle it, because I don’t want to lose continuity. I think it’s going well so far, but the truth moment will be when I reach the point at which I stopped last time. I’m hoping that by then I will have enough notes to help me to make the decisions about what to go back and fix before carrying on to complete the full manuscript.

Of course I really want to get the whole thing down, because nothing thrills me more than that moment when I complete a first draft, before the hard slog of transforming it into an actual readable novel begins with the second draft and goes on for however many drafts it takes. However, it’s pointless crashing on through this draft if the first half doesn’t hang together well enough to make a solid foundation for the rest of the story.

What have I learned so far, from doing this?

  • As much as I’m grateful to NaNoWriMo for helping me write over 50,000 words in 30 days, part of me wishes I had taken longer and written less, because it would have made more sense and there wouldn’t be so much to undo now, before moving on.
  • It’s always good to take a break from something which you threw down on the page in a rush of 30 days. Many writers agree that the longer you leave a manuscript to sit before picking it up again, the more likely you will be able to read it with new eyes and see the mistakes with startling clarity. Taking a break gives you a better perspective on how it reads, what it’s all about, and how engaging it might be for readers in the future.
  • Don’t make any rash decisions while reading through. It might sound easy to delete half the text or start over completely, but burying myself in it and surrounding myself with my own words is helping me to find my voice for this piece.
  • This manuscript isn’t as bad as I had feared, and parts of it are definitely going in the right direction. My belief in it has been restored, not undermined. Now I just have to bring the rest of it into line, and then complete it.
  • Don’t rush it. There are areas of historical research that I am really keen to read up on, and this time I won’t be churning out a daily word count at the expense of sacrificing my research time, which was part of the problem back in November 2016.
  • My Dad always used to say, “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.” I love the story idea for this novel, and it’s definitely worth doing it properly. I long ago decided that I could never be one of those authors who spews out a new book every few months, or weeks. This one will take as long as it needs to take, it deserves my full attention, and I’m not prepared to compromise on it. I love this book, and I’m going to make it work!

Writers and readers out there – what do you think about the benefits of taking a break and returning to a WIP with new enthusiasm? I highly recommend doing it.

Life is Like A Novel. . . Sometimes

I’ve been doing a fair bit of research into novel structure lately, while trying to get my life on track and back into some kind of routine. However, not much in my life seems to be running according to plan, despite my best intentions. Exasperated, at one point I silently declared that my life was like a bad novel because everything kept going wrong.

And then I realised that this did not denote a bad novel, but an interesting one, full of drama, missed opportunities and plot changes which constantly evolve, thus motivating the characters to do something they might not have intended to do before.

(The only trouble with this plot is that it’s too indistinct and I have no idea where it’s all going to end up before the – I hope! – happy ending. Maybe this is how pantsers work?)

While it can be distressing to have too much drama in one’s actual life, this is the best thing for characters in novels. No one likes to read a novel about a character who has all his ducks in a row and his life perfectly planned, because that’s just too boring to read about. It’s fine to start a novel like this, but within a few pages there needs to be a catalyst that changes everything and throws all his plans into disarray, making him run constantly through the rest of the book, making new plans, troubleshooting, and generally trying to catch his breath before the next onslaught of plot points.

As writers, we have to capture the reader’s interest from the start, and then hold onto it while we fling them along the roller-coaster of the protagonist’s life, making then root and cheer with the highs, commiserate with the lows, and worry about the dangers.

All things considered, my life is not as dramatic and topsy-turvy as the lives I map out for the characters in my novels, but thinking about this did help me to put my own problems in perspective and give me a bit of distance from them.

It also gave me the motivation I needed to start thinking about my current WIP and what I’m going to throw at my characters in the New Year when I finally get time to carry on writing.

What about you? Does your life read like a bad novel? Or like an exciting one?