Sunday, 19 July 2015

A Window to the Soul

I've been making up stories for as long as I can remember, but I was around 12 when I realised I was a writer. My first "novels" were a ghost story and a soppy teenage romance full of cheesy lines and stereotypical characters, and far too many descriptions of hair colour. Before long, I was making lists of names for characters, maps of a Narnia-esque fantasy world and profiles for my imaginary people. But the thing is, I have this rule where I never let anyone read my work until it's finished, and aside from snippets and short stories written solely to gain feedback from my creative writing circle, I haven't ever finished anything.

But last November I made a breakthrough. I finally finished the first draft of a novel I had been working on for three years, the first novel I had good ideas for and the first time I knew I had to finish something. This determination spurred me on to begin the second draft, A few weeks ago, after spending a good six months tidying up the timeline and adding scenes that joined up the pieces of the puzzle, I started writing the third draft, this time focusing on dialogue and getting facts straight. But then the doubts that have been simmering away in the background for years finally came bubbling to the surface, throwing obstacles in my way.

Like any writer, I've had doubts before, such as writer's block when I wasn't sure where the plot was going or the cringing when I felt like my writing sounded terrible. But this time, the doubts are crippling me. At first I despaired of my dialogue, which has always been one of my weak points. But now I can see that dialogue is just a trivial symptom that I can shelve along with writer's block and cringing. The real problem has been niggling away at me since I started writing this novel, but now it has come crashing into me, and for the first time I am seriously considering abandoning all my hard work.

Because I realised this isn't like my other attempts at novels. In the past, my writing was pure fiction, such as fantasy worlds with cliché scenarios, heroes and villains and quests. But this novel isn't like that. This novel, while fiction, draws on real experiences and real feelings, because unlike teenage me, I have now lived and felt and seen. The plot and characters may be figments of my imagination, but the saying goes that the best writing comes from the heart, and I have applied that in my novel.

Despite my half-hearted attempts at toning it down (another saying is that writers should be honest and not worry about what people think), I am only too aware that my novel gives quite a raw insight into my soul. And although I want people to hear what I have to say, I'm afraid of showing who I am and afraid of how I will be judged. If it were only perfect strangers who were going to read what I've written, I probably wouldn't care. But the people who are going to read my novel include those who know and love me. And let's not be too optimistic; they may even be the only ones to read my writing.

And so I've stumbled across the writing problem that seems to be the least talked about. I have read books, blogs and Pinterest pins full of advice regarding character building, strengthening plots and improving dialogue, but aside from the quotes telling you to "be honest", "don't care about what people think" and "the best writing comes from the heart", I haven't come across many accounts from writers having to get over the crippling fear of exposing their soul to their nearest and dearest. I feel like I've come too far to give up now. I have two beta readers - a best friend and my boyfriend - waiting impatiently for me to finally let them read my work, and my family are asking me when I'm going to show them the fruits of all these years of labour.

Perhaps I will give up now, at the last hurdle. Or perhaps I will shelve it away until I stumble across it at 80 and do a Harper Lee. Or perhaps I'll just grin and bear it.

The best writing comes from the heart. Now I just have to decide whether or not I should let people see me at my best.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Food of Love

I was never one for cooking. I believe in eating healthily, but despite that, cooking has always been a chore. As a child I hated being asked to help with dinner, while my brother was eager to be in the kitchen with mum, spurred on by childhood dreams of becoming a chef (he is now studying Accountancy, but cooking is still a hobby for him, as far as I'm aware). So, when I was seventeen and getting ready to head off to uni, my mum played a trick on me to make sure I could fend for myself in the big, bad world. She and the family headed out for the afternoon, leaving  me with instructions to have a spaghetti bolognese on the table by the time they came back. Sure, I knew the basics, I had had no choice but to help with dinner occasionally, but I had never cooked a meal from start to finish before. Aside from the fact that the onions were a little too al dente for our taste, the meal was a success. Seventeen year old me was brimming with domestic pride.

Let's fast-forward a few years, past the kitchen highs and lows of university where I learned to make a cracking veggie lasagne but resorted a little too often to Super Noodles, or else cooked my carrots but forgot to defrost my chicken. Like many freshers, my diet wasn't the healthiest, especially not during that time when I ate everything my mother wouldn't let me have as a child (why did I think that white bread was that good?) But a mixture of gaining a better understanding of nutrition and living with housemates who were good cooks eventually gave me a few useful strings to my bow. Yet despite a preference for a Mediterranean style of cooking (I refer you to my Spanish upbringing) and picking up a few tips and tricks along the way, I couldn't consider myself a good cook. And the main reason for this is performance anxiety.

Sure, I can cook for myself. But if I make a mistake, or something doesn't taste good, what does it matter? Better luck next time, I can learn from my mistakes. But cooking for other people, especially people who don't know me very well, is stressful. I have recently come back from a year in Hamburg, and while I picked up lots of tips and recipes from my German hosts, cooking for them was for me akin to sitting an exam or going to an interview. I dreaded it. And it's not just getting it to taste good. Things like getting everything cooked in time, cooked at the same time, and getting a meal to the table while all the components are still hot are things I'm just not very good at.

But three weeks ago I moved in with my boyfriend. I'm not a housemate any more. I'm not a lodger living with a host family. I'm not living with my parents. I am the woman of the house, and while I've been waiting to start work again (next Monday, not long!), naturally it's up to me to cook dinner while my boyfriend is at work. And it's interesting how, despite my dislike for cooking, now that I have to do it every night I'm starting to enjoy it. I don't get that stage fright with my boyfriend. I trust him not to judge and criticise. Last Sunday, while enjoying a lamb roast which I surprised myself by cooking rather well (I don't recall cooking lamb before, so you can understand me being pleased with myself) I realised that over these past three weeks I haven't put a bad meal on the table. There were one or two dishes which I considered mediocre, perhaps, but no disasters, no burnt veg, nothing horribly greasy or tasteless.

I've always had a love for food, but never a love for cooking. Until, perhaps, now. My mum's guidance hasn't gone to waste. Her love of flavour and all things Mediterranean have influenced my cooking, and I've taken that and combined it with what I've picked up from my travels and people I've  lived with, such as ways to make vegetarian foods appealing to a meat eater, and that German love of something as simple as butter to add flavour to any dish (so yummy, but so naughty for the waistline). Sure, there is bound to come a time when I make a total mess and we have to resort to a takeaway pizza, but for now I've found something out about myself that I'm quite proud of: I can cook, and I'm eager to get better at it.