Creativity and the Kitchen

Recently I found myself drawn to old-fashioned cooking.  Lamb stew made from the leftover roast, with celery and pearl barley.  I even made bread pudding.  I don’t normally do puddings, we just don’t eat them often enough for it to be worth it – but there was the remains of last week’s loaf, and suddenly I wanted bread pudding.  Not because I feel compelled to use up every last scrap of food but because…I just wanted it.

I wanted those smells.  The smells of my mother’s kitchen.

And I realised that it was coming up to the anniversary of my mother’s death.

I’m not saying these things are necessarily connected, but it’s not unlikely that they are.  The approaching anniversary of a death can manifest in strange ways.  A vague restlessness or depression, a desire to get away from old places or to revisit them.  And sometimes a longing for the things we remember, like the milky-spice smell of bread pudding.

And what does this have to do with creativity?

Cooking is creative, or can be.  And for me, it’s a creativity that is generally without pressure, without any of the anxieties that are tied to writing. It has its frustrations and pitfalls but they are minor, temporary, occasionally amusing, seldom more than mildly annoying at worst.

For a start, cooking is not my job. No-one is paying me to do it – so if I get it wrong, I’m not going to be fired.  If it’s inedible, we’ll shove a pizza in the oven or my Dearly Beloved will make one of his own excellent dishes.

And mainly, and perhaps most significantly, I don’t expect great things of myself.  I haven’t gone through my entire life thinking of myself as a ‘chef’ the way I’ve thought of myself, from the age of nine or so, as a ‘writer’. If a dish, especially a new one, turns out right, I’m delighted, and usually slightly surprised.

It is very valuable to have creative aspects in your life that are not tied to your sense of self-worth, and that are not monetised.  Apart from the pleasure and relaxation they give just of themselves, I believe the sense of joy and achievement also feeds back into other creative work.  It helps you relax, and remember why this stuff was supposed to be fun.

And there are lessons to be learned, specifically, from cooking.

From my mother I learned many of the basics, and a handful of dishes that I could do without thinking too hard.  But for years they never had quite the flavour they had at her hands – generally because I didn’t take enough trouble. I didn’t add the extra touches, do the specific little things that deepened and rounded out the flavour.

I’ve learned that these little touches matter.  And that very definitely applies to other forms of creativity.  It’s worth taking the trouble to get the proportions right, to fry this before adding that, to remember the shake of Cayenne in the Bolognese if you want it to taste like your mum’s.  Without those touches, you may have something edible – but you won’t have that dish. It won’t have the richness.

If you reach for the first metaphor that happens to be to hand instead of searching for the absolutely right one, the one that intensifies the atmosphere of your scene or gives insight into the thought-process of the character; if you have your character come out with what you or a random work colleague or Action Hero Type A might say, instead of thinking about exactly what words that person would use under those specific circumstances, then you’re throwing something together, it’s fast food.  Bland, unsubtle, exactly like every other burger.

And sometimes you have to add your own touches.  My mum didn’t put a splash of red wine in her Bolognese sauce, I do.  There are things I learned from writers I admire that I do differently, because I want to tell my story, my way, not theirs.  This, too, is something you learn – and learn by doing.  I didn’t know whether a splash of wine in the Bolognese was going to work until I tried it – and I didn’t know how much works best until I tried it several times.

To return to the origin of this post – creativity can be sparked by unexpected things, by things you’re not aware of.  Stuff bubbles up from the subconscious and the mostly-forgotten.

I wasn’t aware, when I wanted to make bread pudding, that I was thinking of my mother’s death, but I was – and of her life. And I might have got a little weepy as the smell of bread pudding spread through the kitchen – but it turned out to be a pretty damn good pudding.  Not only that, in the process of making it, I had some thoughts about the relationship of a character with her mother, and about the social standing of cooks in the society I’m creating.

Creativity feeds creativity.  You never know where ideas may come from, so be open to them.  And taking trouble is generally worth it – even when you’re doing it for fun.

Finding Quiet

There is a lot of noise out there.  All the time.  Sometimes it is stressful, unpleasant noise – sometimes it is entertaining noise.

The problem is, it’s noise. 

And creativity often requires silence.

This silence doesn’t have to be actual silence – I’m not suggesting you have to lock yourself in a soundproofed cell.  For some people music is an essential part of their creative space. For others, white noise, natural sounds, or the traffic going by outside can all help create the necessary headspace.

For actual aural noise which causes distraction, I suggest investing in noise-cancelling headphones (or nicking your partner’s, as I did).

But that’s not the same as noise. Noise is the stuff that batters at the creative space. The sly distracting imps of the internet. The awareness of the undone washing-up or the unanswered email. The nasty chittering anxieties of your own thoughts. Money worries, relationship worries, worries about your creative life – am I doing it right? Do I have a right to do it at all? Will I get anywhere? Will anyone notice? Why is Writer/Artist X doing so well when I’m not?

All of this is noise. Stuff. Some of it may be real, genuine stuff – stuff that you will have to deal with at some point – but you shouldn’t be trying to deal with it right now, because right now, you’re trying to get some work done.

So try to cut the noise.

There are a number of techniques for this. Meditation is one, and there are plenty of simple guided meditations available online, very cheap, or free. As one who has only recently begun to do it with any sort of regularity, I can recommend it – both for improved focus, and for reduced stress. It doesn’t necessarily block out those uncomfortable thoughts, but it can help you let them pass through your head without turning into a complete logjam in the way of your work.

It can help to make lists of the real-life things that need doing and tell yourself you’ll deal with it – after you’ve done some work. (If you want to try this, do it outside the time you’ve allotted yourself for the work – maybe the night before – because otherwise you’ll end up using your creative time for this).

The worries about creative work itself? That’s another post.  Several other posts (including last week’s). But try and put them aside for now. Again, you might want to write these worries out – not now, not in your allotted creative time, but some other time – before or after you’re trying to work. Get them down on paper (or screen). It’s amazing how much being written out can weaken these monsters.

Programmes like Freedom or Self Restraint are useful cages to lock those internet imps in. Because do you really need to find out what’s going on in the latest Twitterstorm? Will that help your work, right now? No. It’s more likely to be upsetting or irritating, even if you don’t get drawn into it.

Do you need to see if anyone’s responded to your last Facebook post?  Will that help you work? If they have, you may get drawn into responding to them, and then it’s a conversation, and then your creative time gets eaten. If they haven’t, you may (if you’re like me) start agonising about whether you said the wrong thing, or maybe everyone’s ignoring you, or thinks you’re boring…just, no. You do not need those thoughts in your creative space. So don’t let them in.

Do you need to keep up with the latest news or appalling human rights violation? Unless you’re a working journalist…no. Not right now.

And preferably not just before you’re about to try and work; there is interesting research suggesting that things that make us feel threatened – i.e. news of terrorist acts, miscarriages of justice or the latest grim thing humanity is doing to the planet – can trigger a response which pushes us towards things that comfort us or make us feel powerful, (snacking, for example, or shopping) but away from things we may already find stressful. Like doing creative work.

(On a side note, there is also research suggesting that looking at pictures of cute animals can help focus your concentration. Really. Something to do with sparkng a protective impulse which makes us more focussed. This does not translate as a license to search for new posts on Cute Overload every five minutes. I suggest a picture of something fuzzy in your workspace instead. And if your idea of cute is a cuddly Cthulhu, go for it).

Creative space isn’t just outside, it’s inside. And the more rubbish, i.e. noise, you can clear out of that space before you start working, even if all you’re doing is shutting it in a cupboard for later tidying, the easier you will find it to work.

 

Creativity 3 – the Voices of Unreason

First, a couple of warnings. One, this post contains the occasional rude word. If you are easily shocked by such, look away now. It contains rude words because I am discussing things about which I feel strongly, and because I use rude words to deal with them.

Two, this post is intended to help with creative self-confidence and productivity. And there is an innate problem for some of us with things that are intended to do this. Because such things, however rah-rah they are, however carefully couched in messages of support and encouragement, can end up making us feel worse.

Why? Easy. Here is all this help being offered, it all sounds so workable, and the person offering it is so nice about it, they’re really trying to help us and make us feel good. Everything we need is there, right in front of us, but then – we read it, and we don’t immediately become incredibly productive overnight! (Without even doing any of the exercises, visualisations, etc.) So we are obviously really bad people, so utterly entrenched and mired in our useless ways that we are beyond help or hope!

Of course, that’s bullshit.

That’s the Voices of Unreason with their whining chorus of self-destruction, they’ve just seized on the latest stick to beat you with. The Voices of Unreason are cunning and have no shame.  They will use anything at all to keep you stuck.

Less than perfect at absolutely everything? “Loser!” They sneer. Decide that it’s better to do 100 words, or 50, than none at all, they’ll howl, ‘Pathetic!’ If you do 1000 words they’ll tell you it should have been 2000, or 4000, and you should have done it yesterday. In fact you should have written the entire novel by now, no, ten novels, and won at least six major awards, and in fact you should have done all this decades ago because now, “You’ve wasted your life so there’s no point trying!”

Creative blocks are often to do with part of your mind which has a huge investment in keeping you safe, and to this part of your mind ‘keeping you safe’ means, to quote Homer Simpson, ‘never try.’  If you don’t try it can’t go wrong. You can’t be exposed to ridicule or hatred or simple failure. Keep your head below the parapet and no-one will shoot at you.

Trouble is if you keep your head below the parapet forever, you’ll never find out if you could have won the war.

Whether or not these voices had their origins in protection, they’re not your friend now.

There are techniques to deal with the Voices of Unreason, and if their noise is overwhelming your life, then seeing a professional is a good option. (Oh, listen, here they go – “See a professional? Self-indulgent whiner! There’s nothing wrong with you that some self-discipline wouldn’t cure!” Because actually getting help when you need it is, according to the Voices of Unreason, bad and wrong. Just think of them as the sort of people who say, ‘Stop whinging and get some fresh air’ to someone with pneumonia – or a broken leg).

However. Right now, you’d just like a chance to get on with it, without everything you try to do to help yourself turning into another stick for the Voices of Unreason to beat you with.

They are nasty. You are allowed, in fact I encourage you, to get nasty back.

I have a sign above my desk. It says, “Fuck off, Quittlemouse.”

Mrs Quittlemouse is a personification of my major Voice of Unreason. She came out of a visualisation exercise. You don’t need anything fancy to create one of your own; just some time to yourself. Write or draw a description of one or more of your Voices – whatever it is you hear when you’re trying to get on with what you want to do.

Mrs Quittlemouse is a nasty, mean, tight-bunned, grim bitch. (She looks a little like the woman in the painting American Gothic, only meaner). She is miserable, and wants everyone else to be miserable too. She curls her lip at my every creative impulse and reminds me of every single time I ever failed at anything. She shakes her head when I sit down at the desk, she purses her lips when I start writing, she sniffs disdainfully at every error and tries to stamp on the fragile shoots of a story before they can possibly grow in the concrete wasteland she has instead of a garden.

I can visualise miniaturising her and dropping her in a glass jar and screwing the lid on (as suggested by Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird), where she can tap her foot and sniff at me all she wants, but I can’t hear her. I can jab mental pins in her or lock her in a safe (with any luck one day the old bitch will suffocate in there. I live in hope).

What I can’t do is make her happy. Her whole being is invested in not being happy, in anti-creativity, anti-love, anti-pleasure. She doesn’t recognise happiness, she recognises only Duty and Failure.

The thing is, she’s actually become useful. Making her into a persona, instead of her being an inchoate whirl of foggy nastiness, a thing I couldn’t reach to fight, pins her down and makes her vulnerable, and perhaps most usefully, separates her from me. I can tell her to fuck off. I’m not telling myself, ‘Oh just get on with it Sebold and stop being useless’ – which is just the Voice of Unreason disguising itself as me – I’m telling her, the person hanging on my arms to try and stop me working, to fuck off.

And realising I can’t make her happy, giving up on the idea that she will ever be pleased with me for doing what I want to do, is immensely freeing. If you win awards, gain respect, buy a yacht – or an island – with your creative earnings, the Voices of Unreason are still waiting for a chance to tell you you’re Doin it Rong. Because they’re always looking for another stick to beat you with. They will never be happy or satisfied, because they don’t believe in happiness or satisfaction. The Voices wouldn’t recognise Happiness or Satisfaction if they did the Macarena in front of them. Naked.

So acknowledge your Voices of Unreason, one at a time or all together. Give them faces and personalities, and then tell them to fuck off. Stop trying to please them, it won’t work. Get angry. Rage at them. Stick them in a glass jar, throw it off a building. Or draw them, looking completely ridiculous. Write them into a story and have horrible, humiliating things happen to them. Or put on your headphones, sing, ‘La la la I’m not listening,’ (or something much ruder), as loudly as you can, and know that the Voices of Unreason are going puce with rage as you ignore them and get that one word, that one brushstroke, on paper. It’s immensely satisfying.

And just occasionally it helps me get on with writing.

Pausing for Thought.

Anything you say in public can come back to haunt you – anything you say online can be a yell in an avalanche zone. Right now there’s a lot of yelling going on and stuff I care about is getting buried under several tons of high-speed, noisy, brain-freezing verbiage.

Seriously. Everyone? On all sides of any argument – before you say anything online, ever? I’m begging you. Please just think.

I am not directing this at any person in particular, but at everyone who comments online. Because whatever the discussion, it’s so easy just to add to the noise, the anger, the choking, obscuring smoke.

Whether you’re posting or replying, please, just think. Are you clarifying the argument, or making a valid point that people may not have considered, or introducing new information? Or are you just snarling? Do you have evidence of the thing you’re about to say? Can you back up your claim?  Or did you hear it from someone in a pub or read it somewhere not known for rigorous journalistic fact-checking? Are you making a considered response to something, a response that has even a slight chance of moving things forward or increasing understanding, or are you snapping at people because you’re angry and hurt?

This applies to me too, of course. I’ve made the occasional utterly thoughtless remark. I’ve been snippy and rude and self-pitying and (I hope, mainly unintentionally) cruel, both online and off, especially in the heat of the moment. I’m trying to stop. Because that stuff has consequences, and those consequences don’t just affect me.

I’m not saying, ‘Always be nice, never be controversial, never be angry;’ certainly not – I am often vocally angry, I am probably occasionally controversial, I am certainly not always nice. Sometimes it is necessary to yell, just to get people to pay attention.

It’s not always easy to yell with point and clarity. Sometimes people say things that are really painful, nasty, incomprehensible, rage-inducingly stupid – and sometimes, like now, I’m having a crappy day and just want to take a chunk out of someone because I am dealing with people and things that have that effect on me.

I am saying please try to choose your targets and consider what you want to say, and why, and in what way you want to say it. Consider the fact that what you’re about to say may have effects, and not just on the person you’re addressing directly. Think about the fact that thousands of people may see your remarks – and keep in mind that it may be the first time some of those people have ever heard of the thing you’re posting about, and it may be the first time they’ve ever heard of you, too. That’s your introduction; that’s who they’ll think you are.

Thought about those things? Then post.

It can’t be that hard, dammit. We’re a fairly bright bunch, we humans, or we wouldn’t have an internet on which to snipe at each other. We can think about a lot of things in a few seconds.

So please. A pause. A few seconds of thought that may, just possibly, help drag any discussion a few millimetres closer to productive discourse – or at least stop it getting any worse.

Notes on Creativity – 2

WHY DO YOU WANT TO DO THIS, ANYWAY?

As society goes speeding on in pursuit of Bigger Better Faster More, many things become harder. One of them is choosing to spend time and effort on something that doesn’t immediately, and may never, produce Sexiness, Celebrity or Money.

Something like writing, say.

And when a writer does Make It Big, it might often appear from the news stories that it took hardly any effort at all.

The phrase Overnight Success should be banned. There is no such thing. There never has been.

Most of the time that ‘first novel’ is the fourth or fifth or sixth, or written after dozens of short stories or other work. Even those whose actual first book is a huge success do not vomit it out overnight without any thought, effort or preparation. True, it may sometimes seem as though that’s the case, but we weren’t there, we don’t know how hard they worked, or how much they agonised over it. And look at any hugely popular creative work, throughout history, and there are people who thought it was a piece of tat. (Sometimes history may agree with them, in which case the work will fade from public consciousness – sometimes history is proved wrong, and the work is rediscovered as a forgotten classic. Nobody knows nothin’, as the saying goes).

The point is that whether someone else’s work does well in society’s terms is irrelevant to you, sitting there right now, trying to get some work done. The only thing that needs to matter to you, right now, is the fact that they managed to get the work done.

And, although there are exceptions, mostly they didn’t do it for money. Or celebrity. Or even for approval.

Because much of the time, none of those are on offer for creative work, certainly not before it’s actually been created. Often the reverse is true: you have to fight to get creative space, to even make an attempt to do the work.

This is harder for some than for others; we all have different pressures. Some of us were brought up to believe that anything that didn’t involve money-making was a waste of time, that life was about financial security. Others, that it was about having a perfect house, perfect career, perfect family or perfect hair and any time spent on something else was at best, foolish; at worst, a selfish and dire sin. (You want to do something that isn’t about being the ideal offspring/image/partner/parent/activist/employee? Burn the heretic!)

Sometimes we have internalised the idea that anything you do on your own, locked away in the silent chatter of your own head, is weird, freaky, wrong – that we’re all supposed to be out having fun with friends or family in a noisy and noticeable fashion, so everyone can see how well socialised we are.

Sometimes we just have an awful lot else to do. Job, family, home, community – these all do, really, take up time and attention and energy and sometimes it feels as though there’s no room left for doing anything creative, and we get so tired, and no-one cares, no-one’s going to even notice, so why bother?

SO WHY DO WE BOTHER? WHY DO WE DO THIS?

We do this because it’s in us to do it. Human beings are by nature creative; we see the results of that all around us, every day. The computer I use, the embroidered cloth on my walls, the desk I sit at – someone imagined all these, someone made them, as well as the books on my shelves (and bed and table and floor. Ahem. I am fighting the ‘perfect housekeeper’ ideal. Quite successfully, as it happens).

We do this because if we don’t, part of us withers and dies. And it doesn’t die clean. It rots painfully away, and infects the rest of our lives with a slow gangrene of unhappiness.

We do this because it feels good. When you actually get going, when you get something done – it feels great. It’s the world’s cleanest high.

HOW DO WE DO THIS?

Ah, there’s the rub. I can’t prescribe. I don’t have the universal antibiotic for block’s disease and no-one’s given me a certificate saying I’m a GP of Creativity. But I have some suggestions.

If you can, forget money. Money for what you’re doing may be important later, yes, but not now, not when you’re just trying to get one thing going.

If you can, forget fame. It’s the most pointless of strivings, a bad-tempered chimera that even if it decides to alight on your wrist is likely to bite you and disappear, leaving you with blood poisoning.

If you can, forget approval. Some of the people whose approval you want are never going to give it, not for this, even if they’re still alive. (Oh, so many of us are still waiting for the dead to give what the living withheld. Give it up. Or try, at least.). The small fraction of society that actually reads books may approve, or may decide to be offended at you on the internet. Hell, you yourself are likely to look at the work at various points and go, jeez, this is a pile of steaming pooh, why did I ever…yeah, since that’s all to come, why borrow trouble this early in the game?

If you can, just think of the work. Not who you hope will see its worth or what you hope you’ll get for it. There’s only one thing you can ever be completely sure you’ll get for any piece of creative work, and that’s the satisfaction of having made it. You’ll have made a thing. And that’s good.

Notes on Creativity: tips, tricks and personal anecdotes (1)

I want to, so why can’t I?

There are people who never seem to get creatively blocked. They merrily produce stories, (or artworks or ceramics or films or jewellery) regularly, frequently, without apparent let or hindrance, maybe even singing as they go.

Try not to hate them. Hating the productive does not improve one’s own life or creativity. It only wrinkles the brow, sours the mouth, and induces back pain.

There are people who agonise over every fragment they produce – such luminaries as Douglas Adams and James Joyce, according to report, expelled every desperate word in paroxysms of painful effort. You might want to write like Adams or Joyce but who wants to go through that much misery?

Most of us are somewhere in between, to differing degrees at different times.

So. There are things to consider. And I believe they apply to other creative arts as well as writing, but I’m using that as my reference as it’s the area in which I have most experience.

Firstly, is writing really what you want to do?

If you have a computer or notebooks full of beginnings, unfinished stories, poems, fragments, half-delineated characters, even a few finished pieces – you’re a writer all right, you just haven’t worked out how to keep at it, even though you want to.

If you have little or nothing, because you’re waiting for the perfect moment, the perfect story, the perfect writing implement, the perfect lifestyle, the perfect everything – I’ve got bad news for you.  It’s not going to happen.  Because you’re lying to yourself – what you’re really waiting for is for a perfectly formed story to drop into your lap without effort.  This is a bad principle to apply to anything in life, including creativity, careers and relationships.

Again, most of us who are interested in writing at all are somewhere in between these two extremes – sometimes with a headful of ideas, sometimes blank. Sometimes finding it easy to produce, sometimes impossible.  Sometimes with a handful of completed works of any length – sometimes with only two. Or one.  Sometimes self-disciplined, sometimes sulky and rebellious.

Any creative work does take effort.  But I have come to believe it doesn’t have to take blood, toil, tears and sweat for every goddamned brush-stroke or paragraph.

So over the next few weeks I plan to offer, among other things, some thoughts on why it’s sometimes difficult to produce, even when you really want to, and some methods I have found that may help to make it easier.

Just for a starter: when you begin, banish the thought of perfection. Nothing starts out perfect, nothing ends up perfect. A baby is only ever a perfect baby. It has to grow, change, be socialised and learn to walk and hundreds of other things in order to become a functional adult human, and the best of adult humans is still an imperfect being. A shrivelled little apple seed contains within it many apples – but only if all other conditions are right, if it gets sun and water and wholesome soil and the loving attention of the bee.  Even then some of the apples will end up with bruises or spots – but they’ll still be good to eat. Your seed, your story, doesn’t have to be a whole tree, right now, or a perfect tree, ever. It only has to be a seed, and get planted.

Being a Geek

The first time I heard the word geek it had something to do with biting the heads off chickens in a dodgy sideshow. (Apparently they swallowed them, too. I can’t help wondering if the heads, like the bodies, carry on for a bit after decapitation, quite possibly trying to peck their murderer on the way down – well, I would.).

A brief query to the Internet Gods reveals uncertainty on the origins of the word. It may have come from German or possibly Scandinavian. It may have originated in words meaning, variously: fool or simpleton, croak, cackle, mock or cheat.

None of these suggest anything very heroic even before the whole thing with the biting off chicken heads. If someone had suggested I was a geek, I would have been both insulted and, frankly, bemused, since I didn’t even meet any chickens until they turned up, cooked, on my plate.

So, I didn’t know I was a geek. I’ve read SF and Fantasy since I bought my first second-hand Edgar Rice-Burroughs at a school jumble sale when I was nine, but I didn’t know a single other fan. The secondary school I went to was sufficiently tiny that there was not a one to be found. I had no idea such things as cons or LARP even existed, and I came late to the main thing that might have helped me find fellow-travellers – the internet.

And all the time there were other people out there who liked the same stuff, and were prepared to admit the fact if only to each other. Geeks. Often sneered at by people who didn’t share their interests, often classed as basement-dwelling weirdos.

Of course, I wasn’t just a geek, I was a writer, from even further back. The first people I found who felt like my tribe were in fact drama students and student writers. Oh, the joy of being actually surrounded by other people who obsessed about scansion and commas! I eventually realised I had little to no talent as either a playwright or a theatre critic – I love theatre, but I’d rather write fantasy any day. Besides, it’s much harder to stage magic on an actual set than on the page.

And finally I found other genre writers, and along with them, other fans. Both my obsessions came together, and it was good. I never realised what was missing in my life until I was able to spend hours discussing both character construction and which weaponry would be most useful in the zombie apocalypse.

I became proud to declare my geekery, and did so at every opportunity, and if anyone was sniffy about it, well, I didn’t have to associate with them because I had actual friends who shared my interests.

Then some time in the past few years geek interests began to move into the mainstream.  Became the mainstream. As this went on a certain type of geekery seemed to become, for some, a badge of honour, a kind of campaign medal of having survived the Wilderness Years.

I wasn’t in the ‘nam of geekery, I never had my head pushed down a toilet for talking about Star Trek. I just didn’t have anyone to talk to about the stuff I liked. Also, I like a lot of stuff – not all of it SF/F related, and not all of it accompanied by much background knowledge or in-depth analysis. This means that to some people I will never be a True Geek.

But the ‘soft geek’ camp to which I belong seems to be more catered for by mainstream media every day. I suspect this is because we have money and can be persuaded to buy stuff with it.

So, now that everyone and her mates watches Game of Thrones and wants a LOTR themed wedding, do I deserve, can I still claim the title of Geek?  Do I want to? I’m far more of a fantasy than an SF nut, I read very few comics and hardly any manga, I do read and watch a lot of stuff that isn’t remotely geeky. Yes, I write fantasy – but that certainly wouldn’t qualify me as a true geek with some of the hardcore any more than being an actual rocket scientist would qualify someone who had never read a word of SF. I’m not even sure, any more, what geek means.

And though I have been a fool on more than one occasion, and have croaked, cackled, mocked and even occasionally cheated, I’ve never bitten off a chicken’s head, live or otherwise.

But I still call myself a geek. I’ll probably continue to do so. Sometimes you have to stick on your own badge, otherwise someone else will stick one on you, and jab the pin in you while they do it.

The Unvarnished Truth

First of all, a quick note to anyone who has posted a comment which I totally failed to reply to for months – sorry!  I’m still finding my way around all this stuff and I think I need a better notifications system.  Or a secretary.  Possibly both.

Anyway. On to the entirely frivolous matter of today’s post.

I really must stop buying nail varnish.

That may require a little explanation. Anyone who has ever met me knows I am not exactly a fashion icon – I am barely a fashion postcard, to be frank. And from about March to September, when the serious gardening is going on, my fingernails are less gleaming talons than fragmented mud-collectors.

But I do like nail varnish, when I have nails. It’s just so pretty. All those bottles lined up like lovely glossy sweets.

And the colours! When I first started looking at it (not actually buying it due to parental disapproval of anything so outré as a 14 year old girl with painted nails, I might as well have got a tattoo and some stripper tassels) the only colours I ever saw were variations from pale pink to bright red. Maybe a bit of glitter if you were lucky.

Then – the Eighties! I was away from home, I had money  – well, I had a brand new bank account and the beginnings of an overdraft that had not yet reached wake-in-the-night terrifying proportions. And there was this sudden chromatic explosion all over the cosmetics shelves. Cadmium yellow! Acid green! Cobalt blue! I could have nails the colour of a New York Taxi! A parrot! A set of Bristol glass! All the above at once! 

So I started buying varnish.

(I also flirted briefly with false nails, at which I was rubbish. I could never get them to stay on for more than a couple of hours, despite using so much glue they ended up about the thickness of a duvet. They used to appear on the floor wherever I’d been like small, gruesome clues in a murder case, or ping off into my drink. Or, worse, someone else’s drink. I even managed to set light to one while I was wearing it (I smoked back then. In the really-bad-for-you way, not the gosh-I-was-kinda-hot way.) Also, they were really expensive).

Anyway to drag myself back out of the false-nails segue, I bought nail varnish. Not every week, or anything – just enough that I had a colour that went with every outfit. I wish I could still get some of those colours, even though a number of the outfits themselves have since been deservedly consigned to oblivion – it was the Eighties, after all.

Then there were jobs, many of which I did not particularly enjoy. Outré nail varnish was a small, silly way of reminding myself that I was a creative, artistic, or at least slightly odd, person and my life was not limited to excel spreadsheets and management meetings and reports even if it sometimes felt like that.

But. The time came when I was working from home. And with all its joys, it means I don’t leave the house as often. I don’t spend the night before sorting out an outfit and making sure my nails are looking decent. So, I stopped using as much varnish.

Unused varnish goes claggy. You can try thinning it with nail varnish remover, at which point it turns into a cross between lumpy glue and Alien blood. Or the top gets jammed and you try and open it with pliers and the whole top of the bottle snaps off and your good trousers get doused in Aubergine Extreme and so does the kitchen floor and suddenly everything is purple and reeking of pear drops.

I have approximately 27 bottles of nail varnish in my nail-varnish drawer. I suspect many of them have already reached the state of no return. I need to fling out the enclagged ones, and not buy any more. At least for a bit.

There is no philosophical point to this post, although you could make a case for clutter-clearing or Letting Go or something, if you wish – or not spending money on stuff that you won’t use, or The Unexpected Side Effects Of Working From Home.

But in reality I just got sidetracked into wittering about nail varnish, instead of doing the stuff I should be doing.

And that, of course, is a whole other blog post.

#greatfirewallofcameron Christmas Challenge

Gosh we genre writers are a dangerous bunch – apparently. Last night my partner Dave Gullen and I discovered both our websites were blocked by O2, under their ‘Parental Guidance‘ controls.

A few tweets established that other genre writers, such as Gareth Powell, (Ack-Ack Macaque) had the same block in place. So we checked a few more:

Genre Writers Blocked
Adrian Tchaikovsky (Shadows of the Apt)
John Scalzi (RedShirts, Old Man’s War)
Emma Newman (Split Worlds)
Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book)
Robin Hobb (Assassin’s series, Ships series, Dragons series)

Children’s & YA Authors Blocked
Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowle)
Philip Pullman (Dark Materials)
Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games)
Philip Reeve (Mortal Engines)
Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar)

They even blocked Jane Yolen, ‘the Hans Christian Andersen of America’.

Not to mention various publishers, such as Angry Robot, Solaris, Gollancz, and Jo Fletcher Books.

Don’t worry, people – it gets better. Scholastic’s web site specifically for children’s books and encouraging children to read is – Blocked!

It turns out that a surprising number of sites are potentially risky – like that well-known bunch of dodgy geezers, the Directors Guild.

Best of all, O2 have wisely blocked Save the Children, and – wait for it – Childline.  So potentially a child might have to go to their abuser and ask for the parental controls to be unlocked so they can get help to deal with abuse. Right?  (Because we all know that abuse only happens in households where the adults are Poor and therefore Feckless, and not where they are the kind of responsible sort who switch on parental controls and please tell me I don’t need a sarcasm smiley here).

If you think this is nonsense, there’s a petition you can sign here.

Our Christmas challenge – find a web site or blog specifically aimed at helping children that is NOT blocked by O2. The first three entries will win a free copy of Dave’s SF novel, Shopocalypse. The next three will win a copy of the first ‘Babylon Steel’ novel.

Here’s the link to the O2 checker. (We haven’t covered BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, or Sky – it was late and we were tired).

Happy holidays.

Andromeda One

Spent a delightful Saturday at Andromeda One – a brand new baby con, run by the indefatigable Theresa Derwin. Who almost certainly cloned herself to get it all done.

For a one-day con it managed to pack in an extraordinary amount – workshops, kaffeeklatsches, and panels galore, covering small press publishing, gender/race/disability in fandom, steampunk, zombies, urban fantasy and SF, among others.

I would have liked to get to more panels. It’s a depressing and unexpected side effect of being a guest that you can’t go to all the interesting stuff that’s on while you’re doing something you’ve actually been booked for. As it was I attended one panel while frantically filling in signing-sheets and trying to rustle as little as possible, like someone eating wrapped sweets at the cinema. It was a good panel, too, on technology and prediction in SF, which sparked some intense discussion in the pub later. What I did get to was generally interesting and well-moderated and I also had some great conversations in between dashing hither and yon.

I was on a panel on tropes in Urban Fantasy, which (aptly enough) led down some fascinating alleyways, and a round-table on race/gender/disability barriers in fandom, which, while not managing to solve all the problems (that would have been pretty impressive) opened up the discussion in useful ways.

I was also on my first ever Just a Minute.  This was no less terrifying for being run by the entirely delightful Paul Cornell, especially when your opponents are the brilliant Jaine Fenn (that gal has a wicked hand on the imaginary buzzer) and a madly gesticulating Jacey Bedford, and you get sudden random insect subjects from Adrian Tchaikovsky, who is practically a giant bee in human form. It all resulted in a hysterical stew, with chocolate-filled locusts and evil wombles thrown in. The audience might have been throwing actual chocolate-filled locusts and evil wombles by the end of it, I was too far gone in hyperventilating overload to notice. It was, in a weird and panicky way, fun. I have just about stopped shaking.

The Custard Factory where the con took place is colourfully repurposed industrial architecture with some amazing artwork –  a giant green man (wearing a box. A window box, in this case), a fantastic 14ft bronze dragon (I’m not sure of the actual measurements, I was going to say ‘life-size’ only, yeah, dragon), and a startled bright orange squid.  Oh, and there’s a really good Nigerian restaurant called Jeun. (Brand new, so there’s not much on their website but an email address). Spicy, yummy, fresh – and huge portions. If you live nearby I’d book now before they’re full up every night.

On a practical note the con space could have done with a central meeting place/bar, better accessibility and possibly a map, but it all seemed to work OK – there was a pleasant nearby pub and the bar at the con hotel, the Paragon, was a good place to end the evening.

Ah, the Paragon. A truly astonishing piece of Victoriana which, entirely unsurprisingly, used to be a lunatic asylum. Vast façade of blood-coloured brick, adorned with Hound of the Baskerville-esque gargoyles, and the occasional small but definite tree growing out of the brickwork. Inside, a lot of walls painted Institutional Green (a rather disturbing homage to its former purpose), drips, leaks, and strange whooshes and burblings that one can only hope came from elderly plumbing. There were also, apparently, phantom footprints burned (yes, burned – one wonders exactly who was stepping out of that shower) into the carpet of at least one room. I rather hope the con itself will be held there next year. Luxurious it wasn’t – intriguing it definitely is.

Adromeda was well worth it, and it was a delightful experience to be at such a very small con, where you actually get a chance to speak to most of the attendees.  I suspect, given the energy and commitment of the organisers, it won’t stay that way for long.