For a while now I have rented my spare room to young international students. They have included a quiet Dutch intern at the National Gallery, an Italian chef, a Spanish English student, a Sri Lankan oceanographer, a Russian art student and, my current lodgers, graduates from Taiwan and China. They have all added hugely to my well being. The varied exotic smells from the kitchen, the voices singing in the shower, the introduction to new ideas, new perspectives and all the laughter combine to make my tiny third floor flat resemble a world cafe!
It is like having daughters and sons who drop in from time to time, to entertain me, feed me and occasionally consult me about difficult decisions. Although I care about them, their welfare is only indirectly my responsibility. I miss them when they leave and then another one arrives and off we go again on a new discovery.
Yesterday I met a young artist who may want to rent the room next year. A Russian who has been educated in America she is hugely talented and full of original ideas. She picks up arts jobs as she goes along and has created projects in the furthest parts of Russia and while hiking around Japan.
Strangely, she was attracted to my advert because of the Chagall prints hanging on the wall behind my profile picture–I think the picture of ducklings may have influenced her as well. We walked round the Botanics together and then came back to the flat for a hot drink. We could have talked for hours. Miss Taiwan and Miss China joined us later and over a bowl of tangerines we had a lovely party. Hearing these young people’s experiences and future plans is both stimulating and inspiring. I am so lucky.
Yesterday I went to the Job Centre. No, not to sign on, but to record an extract of my story “The Department for Recycled Men” which I will be reading at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 11 August (Spiegeltent, 4pm). As Colin Fraser led me at top speed through a labyrinth of corridors and rooms, I reflected on how much more fun my current visit was compared to my last one. Forest use a couple of rooms in the now defunct Job Centre. The interior is as disjasket as it used to be in its DHSS (yes that long ago) heyday but is now home to a variety of interesting projects including Forest, The Welcoming, Write Here, Write Now and an art gallery. It is great that the building is being used. It could do with some voluntary receptionists however as anyone without a key has to be met and escorted during their visit. I might as well have been blindfolded for what I managed to gather of my route from front door to Forest.In fact I’m surprised the building has not been purchased by the armed forces to train soldiers who have to tackle operations in densely populated cities.
And the preparation for reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Story Shop begins today. Minor panic when the last page of my story “The Department for Recycled Men” appeared to have gone missing. Found resting on the kitchen counter. I’m off to a voice/performance workshop with Alex Gillon this afternoon. A wee bit scary. Last time I was at this workshop I was (quite rightly) criticised for doing a practice reading with a biro in one hand which I clicked from time to time. This time I will draw an exclusion zone between biros and me. I will need a pencil though. Perhaps in a pocket? Oh, hell, that means rethinking a whole outfit. Sigh. Hope that my adrenaline levels settle in time for the City of Literature Salon in the evening. If you see me there bouncing off the ceiling you have permission to take me outside and leave me there until I calm down. Unless it is raining.
As some of you know I finished the novel part of my PhD the other day. For some reason I feel I ought to mark this with a blog. However I am still reeling from hearing that my sub-conscious rules me like a programme downloaded from a computer and that there is barely a thing I can do about it. Apparently up until age 7 we download these programmes by watching how our parents interact with each other and with society. Then after age 7 we learn by rote and habituation. The conscious mind although it is creative can’t do a darned thing about these hardwired bits of learning. Sigh.
This is how my parents interacted. My father worshipped my mother and would hear no ill of her while my mother (in my lifetime) stormed through life making sure that we all acted as her adoring satellites. I probably don’t mean satellites but it’s been a long week. I probably married my mother, certainly I married someone who had a lot of admirers and who did what he wanted to do. So that means I was programmed by my father? Oh it’s all too much.
Back to the novel then. At the last minute and I really mean, the last minute, I cut 14000 words from the whole, bringing it down to the required 70,000. This means that when I send it out to publishers I will have to put back the 14000 words and create more words to bring it up to 100000 which is the required length for commercial women’s fiction. Honestly it’s the bulimic version of literature. Binge, vomit, binge even more. No offence intended to people who have the very nasty condition of bulimia which I know is very hard to cope with.
The trouble with creating something in two parts (I have to write a 30000 word critical component) is that now I have finished the first part (the novel) I feel like letting it all hang out and lolling. Which I MUST NOT DO because I have to finesse my critical component and cut it by 6000 words. You would think there was an ink shortage at university or something. And when I’ve done that it could be months before two examiners are free to give me my viva by which time, being a middle-aged woman with moderate memory and butterfly mind, (oops that’s my subconscious programming rearing it’s ugly head again) (hang on though, what about the unconscious? Have I just learnt something all wrong? My mother frequently said “Get it right!) I will have forgotten all about what I wrote in my PhD. Amazing, frankly that I remembered the end of the sentence what with all the parentheses.
I told my hairdresser about the event where people join each other in a pub for an hour of hush when they read books silently. “That would be my idea of Hell,” he said. Reading a Patrick Ness story about a boy who thinks he has arrived in Hell. But I digress.
Without a novel to hold me together I shatter into little pieces that make no. sense. at. all.
It goes against all my instincts to answer the above question with “Yes, we are nearly there!” in case I jinx the imminent completion of my novel and critical component for my PhD at Newcastle. I have managed to send two creative supervisors to the extreme act of moving to a neighbouring university to get away from me, found a fairy godmother and had my manuscript rejected by Mills and Boon with the admonition to “read more Mills and Boon books.” I leave it to the reader to decide which of these events are positive or negative.
I appear to have agreed to spending the next seven days (and nights, I suspect) writing up the (hopefully) final version of both my novel and my critical component. (Let’s just pretend that the bibliography will be completed by elves–probably the same elves that will proofread, print and bind my PhD). It’s still a huge milestone and, barring Acts of God or more likely invading viruses of either the bodily or computer kind, makes me feel relieved.
However, I have just skim read a particularly vital chapter of my critical component and found it intensely boring. While part of this reaction is due to over familiarity with the content, there remains the possibility that examiners will also find their eyelids drooping over it. How to remedy this? Different coloured inks? (ref Faulkner) Post modern fragmentation of the pages? (ref BS Johnson) A dialogue? Scrap it altogether? (step away from the highlight/delete buttons). Perhaps I should insert a prayer, as some of my mother’s Ugandan students used to do. Whichever method I select will be better than this procrastinating but essential reflection. Watch this space. Or don’t, if you are also grinding away at the last version of your PhD. Just do it.