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The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned as a Writer

In July 2017 I achieved something I never thought I would do. I published a book. I’m 46. For me, it wasn’t a lifelong goal. I haven’t harboured aspirations to be an author since I was 12 years old. It literally happened because I believed I had some good ideas for a story, could write pretty well, and probably most importantly, live my life with a pretty solid armour of perseverance.

Writing a book, like all journeys, involves the stuff you know is going to happen, and the stuff you either know about but are not prepared for, or don’t know about at all. You know it’s going to involve time on your own, putting words to paper, typing it up, revising, editing, making it sound amazing.

What was hard to contemplate from the outset was the magnitude of solitude involved. And how solitude changes you.

When I started writing in 2015, solitude was not something that featured significantly in my life. I live in an urban environment and have access to technology and social media. Like everyone else, I can choose to be connected 24/7, every minute, every second, of every day if I want. This connectedness, so we are lead to believe, is the ultimate ‘cure’ for the loneliness often associated with solitude.

Anyone who has ever tried to spend significant periods alone knows how hard it is. It was something I had to work at. I was fidgety, restless, craved distraction. I was stuck with my own mind and it was an incredibly uncomfortable experience. Thoughts came into my head and possessed me. Thoughts like who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are-writing-a-book and not-so-gentle reminders that I was nowhere near as good as all the authors I love and admire. I came to the rather sobering reality that being a writer means sitting with your own mind for long periods of time. It was not something I was warned about, but you REALLY get to know yourself when writing a book.

The ability to be alone is an essential condition to write a book. That’s pretty obvious, no surprises there. The same could be said of any undertaking that requires concentration and focus from crocheting a blanket, to tinkering on an old car, or painting a picture, or reading a book. What I’ve come to learn is that the ability to be alone is also an essential condition to love. That’s right, people, love. It’s only through time on your own you truly discover who you are, and it’s only once you truly know who you are that you can give love unconditionally to another. When you build solitude and stillness into your life, you notice things that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. All that matters is the activity you’re immersed in and giving your whole being to it. It really doesn’t matter what it is, all that matters is giving it your full attention. And such is the requirement of love.

Paradoxically, all this busyness, all this connectedness which is meant to make us feel less alone is often having the reverse effect. We’re feeling more alone than ever because we’re often not learning who we are and how best to tend to our needs. We’re running away from alone time, repudiating it. We’re hoping other people will just ‘get’ us when we often don’t even know ourselves.

All our gadgets and technology purporting connectedness are here to stay and they certainly have their place. It’s now about how we find a balance between alone time and worldly stimulation, how we quell our fears of aloneness and embrace what’s on offer from a bit of solitude: time to get to know yourself. It’s a practice. It’s not the solution to everything, but it’s likely to yield some beautiful surprises.

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Handmade Renaissance

Most people have an interest in being creative in some way. Our jobs are often just not big enough for us. Not many define themselves by their Monday to Friday jobs, but ask them what their interests are and you start getting to the essence of the person.

In the very early days of writing The River and the Ravages, I knew I wanted the protagonist, Aaliya, to be a saddle maker. This wasn’t just a random selection of a trade relevant during medieval times. I wanted saddle making for its association with practicality and for its incredible range for beauty. Saddles have stories. The people that had owned the saddle, the distances it had covered and the horses it had been on, the battles the saddle had been in, the unique parts of the world the saddle had been taken to. All of this mattered. And it shaped the character, Aaliya: who she was, what she stood for, what she wanted to achieve.

There’s a significant renaissance in the handmade movement at the moment. Etsy.com (Ebay for handmade) is mega-business as people seek out unique products. I’m drawn to handmade the same reasons so many other people are: the ideas, the tactility, and the hands that work upon the matter. You don’t just get a material item with handmade, you get meaning and stories. There’s longevity. Handmade items are rarely thrown out and in our disposable society, that’s BIG. Handmade items are often handed down through generations. They stand the test of time in a world where there is so much change and nothing seems to last. They help to define who we are and our place in the world.

I’m also heartened by the fact that around the world schools of old trades and craft are opening up and are thriving. Schools for blacksmithing, saddle making, woodworking, decorative ironwork and on it goes. Many people have become interested in learning old trades and craft as a way of counterbalancing our busyness and highly distracted modern lives.

More importantly, I think everywhere people are learning there’s a sense of joy to be had from making. There’s also a strong connection with the present moment when you’re making. You’re not thinking about your imperfect body, or the size of your mortgage, or your messy divorce. Loneliness simply drifts away when making and creating. All that matters is the connection of hand and mind and achieving something real and beautiful. Even if it’s just for yourself. No one else need ever see it.

Victor Frankl once wrote: ‘It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.’ Joy is the goal, not happiness. And I’m a firm believer that making is a strong element of joy in life.

Expect that anything worthwhile takes a long time. You won’t go from novice to highly skilled overnight in whatever craft you pursue. But that’s not an excuse not to start. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. But you already know that. And it’s more than likely you’ll discover a whole lot about yourself along the way.

And you know what’s the easiest part? Nothing. It’s hard work. But the rewards are plenty.

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Why I write what I write and other glorious anecdotes

I read some advice by author Joanna Walsh, “define carefully what makes you uncomfortable, and dwell in that difficulty. Find ways to enjoy it.” It’s hard for me to contemplate the notion of discomfort while I sit outside with the sun on my back on this beautiful spring day, but I know it all the same.

Something I secretly fear (but act like it’s no big deal) is that my book The River and the Ravages simply doesn’t fit easily in a genre. I didn’t follow the rules of outlining my plot and forming my characters based on what is normally done in any single genre. This was pointed out to me quite early into my writing but it felt too darn important to me to keep writing the book that was inside me and not follow the rules. I may pay for that decision one day, but I may, on the other hand, reap the rewards.

Too often we fear to take bold steps and instead follow the safe path. I’m not being critical by any means. I’ve done it plenty in my own life. There are often so many competing priorities in any given decision to be made, I wonder how any decision gets made in the first place. But for the big stuff, the stuff that defines who we are, who we choose to love, how we spend our days, our weeks, our lives, it often requires gutsy decisions and dwelling in some bone-deep difficulty for a while.

What it means to me as a writer, is than I’m going to continue to write what interests me. Sex. Love. Family. Money. Death. And I’m going to continue to write about people on the brink of change and growth. People who sometimes make some great decisions, and who sometimes stuff up quite spectacularly.

And I’m going to have so much fun along the way. What a time to be alive!

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