Dining out on prawns (the Japanese way!)

th-2.jpegTwenty years ago I went to live in a small village in rural Japan, ostensibly to teach English, although my real reason was to learn Japanese. As I was working for the Japanese government, my first few weeks were crammed with rather formal parties known as ‘enkai‘ which were mainly attended by middle aged Japanese men and the odd token woman, whose primary purpose was to flutter around serving the men food and beer. As the foreigner (with long blonde hair and blue eyes to boot!) I was the star guest – a lovely position to be in as everything was free and I was treated like a princess. However, the difficulty of these events was that no one could speak a word of English, and at that time I could say little more than konnichiwa!

On one particularly stuffy occasion, after having been subjected to a multitude of tediously long speeches, I noticed a tiny, kimono-clad woman shuffling across the room towards me. As the star guest I was the first to be served. ‘Dozo,’ she said, bowing very low. ‘Please help yourself.’ And she proffered a large basket filled to the brim with shellfish. The speeches stopped and everyone turned to look at me. Still not au-fait with chopsticks, I tentatively leaned in and attempted to pick out one of the prawns. With relief I succeeded in extracting it from the basket and dropping it onto my plate. But no sooner had I done that, did it jump off and scuttle to the end of the room. I shrieked out in shock and the whole room erupted in laughter. I later discovered that once the prawn is on your plate, you’re supposed to take off the shell, dip the poor creature in soy sauce then stuff it quickly into your mouth, breaking its back with your teeth. After that you swallow it. My friend tried it once. ‘Never again,’ he said afterwards as he couldn’t forget the sensation of the wriggling legs as the prawn disappeared down his throat. Having said that, you can’t beat live prawns for freshness, cruel though the manner of death might seem by western standards.

This post is part of SoCS

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Finally a bit of success :-)

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One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to take part in a few weekly writing competitions, and so far I’ve managed to stick to it. It’s great fun and even if you don’t win, can provide you with ideas or even drafts for future stories. One which I’d particularly recommend and I’ve had a little success in is Write Invite. It runs from 17:30 GMT every Saturday and costs £4.00 to enter. You’re given three different prompts from which you have to choose one and you then have half an hour to write a story. The top three are shortlisted and from the following Wednesday to Saturday all entrants vote for their favourite with the result announced just before the next competition. I was shortlisted last week and ended up coming third. You can read my story here –  Warm hands mean what?

Finishing what you started

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I’ve always had a problem with finishing things – books, relationships (!) and now writing. Particularly writing. I  have a whole mass of unfinished short stories, flash fiction and now even a novel thrown into the mix, and when I say ‘unfinished,’ I mean written, but not edited to a suitable standard, a saleable standard, I guess.

I really want to understand the mentality that lies behind not completing something you’ve set out to do. In my case I would say it’s down to self-belief, as the things I truly believed I could do, I persevered with – piano playing, becoming fluent in Japanese and running two marathons.

Writing, however, is a different thing altogether. With the activities mentioned above, there is constant proof you’re improving (passing exams, being able to communicate well and completing races), but with writing, when you’re not winning or getting shortlisted in competitions, you only have your self-belief to tell you that you’re on the right track. Of course you can always depend on your nearest and dearest to tell you how talented you are (my mum is my biggest fan), but they’re probably slightly biased! With a creative pursuit such as writing, you have to dig deep and ignore the little voices that tell you can’t do it.  In my case, it’s getting easier. The more I do it, the more I feel I’m able to do it, so I’ve now reached the stage where it’s easier and more enjoyable to do it than not and that’s a great feeling.

I’m now in the process of revisiting my stories and editing them to the standard where I feel they have a realistic chance of publication, whereas in the past I would have just given up on them and started something new. This not only a sign that my self belief is increasing but also that I’m starting to take my writing more seriously.

Writing in dialect

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On Wednesday I was lucky enough to see Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell in conversation at the Royal Festival Hall, London. They covered many writing-related topics and one which particularly interested me was the use of the vernacular when writing. Ishiguro commented that he thought Mitchell very bold in the way he totally embraced the language and dialects of his characters, something that he seemed more reticent to do.

I must admit that this is something I’ve always shied away from when writing, I’m not sure why, possibly due to a worry that I’ll get it wrong. However, in the recent NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, one beta reader suggested that I give my characters different voices as it helps keep them separate and adds interest. I read this woman’s story which was excellent, partly due to her ability to use dialect, although I noticed that a few other readers didn’t like this aspect of it, I think because they felt it slowed down the story as they didn’t understand some of the words. I’d love to know what others think.

 

 

The peaks and troughs of writing

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Yesterday I was feeling a bit flat as I’d received three (writing comp) rejections in a matter of days. It’s so easy at times like this to get demoralised and allow the familiar feelings of doubt to creep in until you quickly end up thinking you have no ability at all (there’s such a fine line between jubilant self confidence and depressive inertia, isn’t there?) I’ve only recently committed to writing, partly because it feels right but also because I believe deep down that it’s something I can do, but sometimes I can’t help wondering whether I’m fooling myself?

What bothers me is that even though these competitions are relatively insignificant, when I get nowhere in them, (especially if I’ve won before), I feel as if I’m going backwards rather than forwards. It’s then that my mind begins to spiral out of control and I end up feeling as if I’m totally and utterly incapable of writing.

What is the answer? I suppose it’s a matter of ignoring the negative little demons and moving on by doing so many little challenges and competitions that when you’re unsuccessful, it doesn’t matter all that much. This is something I’m learning. It’s really helped reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, as she points out that the whole rejection thing is just something you have to deal with. It’s all part of the writing process.

Yesterday when I received my third rejection, I had this horrible knot of disappointment, somewhere around the level of my heart, but instead of instantly blocking the feeling out as I normally would, I absorbed it for a few seconds, really felt the feeling and that helped a lot. Then I forgot about it, opened a bottle of wine and consequently felt a whole lot better.

I don’t think rejection is ever something I’ll really come to terms with, but what I’ve discovered is that it helps to have lots of balls in the air at once. I’m now getting ready for my regular Friday competition, and if I don’t get placed in that, I’ll try to find other places to submit the story. If nothing else, the whole practice of writing to a deadline helps to generate ideas, and having a number of things out there keeps the hope of success alive.

Creative Magic

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I’ve just finished reading ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ some time ago and kind of liked it, identified with it I suppose, probably because I’ve travelled a lot, as has Gilbert & we’re around the same age.

Big Magic (subtitled, ‘Creative Living Beyond Fear’) received mixed reviews (on Goodreads). Some reviewers mocked her notion of ideas floating around waiting to connect with the right people, but I found this concept not only believable but also exciting and almost magical, as if an idea is like a soulmate that you need to write into being.

The points I’ve made below are the ones that stood out for me. Gilbert’s advice is simple yet practical and it makes sense to me. After receiving a rejection on Friday, reading her book installed a breath of positivity into my weekend which ended quite nicely when I was long listed in a competition.

She suggests you should:

1/ ‘Reveal what you know’ – it’s not about the qualifications you have, it’s more to do with what you’ve experienced, and that provides you with the fodder you need to be creative.

2/ ‘Start whenever you decide to start.’ There’s no age limit when it comes to creativity. (Gilbert cites the example of a woman who started to study the history of ancient Mesopotamia at the age of 80 and was a world expert by 90!)

3/ ‘Stay with the process,’ as by doing so and not panicking, you’ll ‘pass safely through each stage of anxiety and onto the next level.’ She says that these fears are natural human reactions to interactions with the unknown.

4/ Not aim for perfectionism as it stops you from completing their work and sometimes even beginning it.

5/ Say yes to clues of curiosity (If you’re stuck about what to write, you should consider developing every minuscule idea that has ever remotely piqued your interest).

One of my spring objectives is to get back to my NaNo novel. I managed to write 50 thousand words in November but have since been wondering whether it’s worth completing, but (as a result of reading Big Magic), I now realise that even if it isn’t, that’s not really the point. The point is that I need to finish it for me regardless of whether it gets published or not. Nothing we do creatively is ever a waste of time.

The joys of being single

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Continuing on from my previous post, Writing and Solitude, today I came across an article in The Independent newspaper, entitled Illustrator captures the simple joys of being single, about the work of Idalia Candelas, A Mexico-based illustrator who has drawn a series of sketches of women (‘Postmodern Loneliness’) who very much enjoy being alone.

This whole solitude thing is somewhat preoccupying me at the moment as I know that in order to commit to writing, a substantial amount of my time must be spent alone. This is something that bothers me slightly as I’m single and therefore feel I should be out and about meeting new people, rather than holing myself up inside. However, I have to say that even though I’ve always resisted solitude, it is something that I now actually relish and I feel that these beautiful sketches express the idea that singledom and the natural solitude that comes with it can actually be a lovely thing.