You’ve got to believe it

December 1, 2009

This piece also appeared in my December newsletter, the Inspirer. To sign up please go to my website

The issues that bug writers, such as procrastination, writers’ block and lack of motivation prevent them from fulfilling their potential. There are many ways to beat these problems into submission, and in my workshop on the subject I list 40 ways to get back on track. I used to think that one of the best ways to beat the block was self-belief, confidence, an unswerving conviction that you were good enough and you could do it. Until this week that is. Now, thanks to my friend and narrative therapist, Gitta Lieberherr, I think I’ve changed my mind.
I believed in French Tarts, my first book, which was accepted by the first publisher approached. I believed in it despite the fact that I had never been published, was 24 and did not cook. When people asked me to what I attributed my success, honestly, deep down, I would answer ‘self-belief’ and they would nod knowingly. It made sense. When they went on to ask me how I came to have such self-belief I told them that it was a combination of naivety and the fact that my father was always telling me that I was incredible, talented, beautiful and clever. But now, thanks to Gitta, I think I need to revise my answer.
I expect you’ve seen the stuff in the press about the damage that can be done to our children when we praise them too much. Indeed, telling your kids they are mini Einsteins when all they have done is get to a higher level on their Nintendo DS, can burden them with false expectations. Telling someone they are the best thing since sliced bread, when in reality they achieved something fairly ordinary, can lower, rather than raise, self-esteem.
This week I had coffee and rather delicious chocolate tart with Gitta because I wanted to talk to her about blocks and how narrative therapy might help my clients. As I mopped up the crumbs on my plate I told her what I call ‘the French Tarts story’ because it seemed the right thing to do. I told her I attributed my success to self-belief.
‘So, why did you believe in yourself, Jo?’ Gitta asked.
‘Because of my father,’ I answered. ‘He was forever crowing about how wonderful and marvelous I was.’
‘But did you believe him?’
Her question stopped me in my tracks. I laid down my fork. ‘Not really, I suppose,’ I said. ‘I was actually pretty average when I was a child.’
‘Then, do you think it was yourself you believed in or your idea?’
I fell silent as I thought. I drained my coffee and set the cup back down in the saucer. ‘The idea, I suppose,’ I answered at last. ‘I really believed in my idea.’
Thanks to Gitta’s questioning, I had exposed one of my longheld truths as a myth. She had a point. I mean, what writer is not crippled with self-doubt and the imposter syndrome now and again? What writer can bear to read every piece he writes after it is published without cringing inwardly and wishing he had done it differently? I was impressed at the speed with which she had reached the nub of an issue.
‘How did you get me to say that?’ I asked. ‘Was that an example of narrative therapy?’
Gitta smiled and nodded. ‘Yes, it was, Jo. In narrative therapy we learn how to separate the problem from the person,’ she explained. ‘I externalized the issue, of self-belief, so it was not dependent on you. When you are no longer part of the issue it creates distance and opens up new ways of handling the problem. That’s all I did. It doesn’t usually only take one question to get to the bottom of something, though,’ she laughed.
I tell my students and mentees that one of the ways to acquire this elusive self-belief is to ask for feedback, act on it, and preserve all the best testimonials, looking at them often to remind themselves that yes, they can write and write well. This works to a point. I do it myself. But, for me, this praise, however high, lasts fleetingly. When it first arrives I am delighted, buoyed up by the kind words. I stick the card on the wall, print the email, grow another inch and feel validated. But this feeling only lasts until the next piece of writing.
Each month I write this newsletter. Each month I chew my metaphorical fist with trepidation as I press the send button. What if this month’s piece is rubbish? Minutes later I get my answer. Someone writes to thank me for striking a chord and I let myself breathe out.
Self-doubt is natural. It keeps me on my toes. It forces me to try my best every single day. It keeps me from complacency. But when I believe in an idea, just as I passionately believed that French Tarts was a good idea at the right time in the right place with the right focus and aimed for the right market, then that’s what matters. That’s what makes the difference.
It does not matter whether you truly, deep down, believe in yourself. It matters that you totally, fundamentally believe in your idea. Your conviction means that your project is in your head every moment of the day and night, that your actions reflect it – that you’re living it. This is what will make the difference, living your belief or to put it narratively, living from your preferred story. It means that your face lights up when you tell people about it and they can feel your excitement too.
So then, do you believe in your idea? I hope so. How I hope so.

Jo

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Writing saved my life

November 9, 2009

Thank goodness I am a writer. If I weren’t then I doubt I’d have survived this merrygoround they call a mobile life. In the last 28 years I’ve lived in 6 different countries with four different languages, lost my identity and found it again. Boy, am I glad I ‘saved’ my life. Not only in the form of my memoir, a Moving Landscape, but using writing as a form of therapy has been a godsend. Read my post on the superb Expat Harem blog here and be sure to have your say . . .

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The following article also appears in my monthly Inspirer newsletter, designed to inspire, support and inform writers. If you would like to receive your copy each month please sign up at my website www.joparfitt.com and pick up a copy of 50 Steps to a Book in Your Hand at the same time.

Here goes:

When it’s time to leave home

I’ll cut straight to the chase and tell you about the thing that has dominated my thoughts since my last newsletter. My son has left home. It was not unexpected. It was inevitable, anticipated, we were prepared. Last year he completed his A levels and the year before he had applied to university in London and been accepted. He started packing the moment he heard he’d got the grades he needed. But when it was time to wave him off, two days ago, it was no less heartbreaking for me. Sam, on the other hand, had a new life to lead, alone, without me to wash his clothes and check he had enough to eat. But even as we drove off through the streets of Islington, back to the Eurotunnel, I could not suppress a slight smile of recognition, that this sweet sorrow mirrors my life as a writer.

You see, they say that a painting, like a piece of writing, is never finished, it just stops in an interesting place. They say that there comes a time when the editing must stop. A time when you actually make things worse by over-refining them. A time when you have to let them go. There comes a time when you must admit you have done your bit leave your work to find its own way.

A couple of weeks before Sam left, I had a day when the enormity of the hole his departure would leave in my life and my nest kept creeping up on me, like the children tiptoeing behind me in a game of What’s the Time Mr Wolf? I had climbed into bed with sinking heart and picked up the copy of The Muses Among Us, by Kim Stafford, that lay on my bedside table. It opened on page 38. I read:

‘One day, it is time for the child to leave home. To remain longer would reverse the principle of healthy growth. That day comes when the child is mature enough to go out into the world, and the parent has other things to do. In the terrifying words of Donald Graves, we should not linger so long with a piece of writing that we begin “giving a manicure to a corpse.”‘

Since reading those lines my feelings about the departure of my firstborn became calmer. If could totally empathise with Stafford’s beliefs as a writer then it followed that if it was time to let go of my son, it was time to let go.

Back in May I had finally finished my novel and realized that it was time I stopped trying to improve it and let it go, too. I printed out a synopsis, cover letter and three sample chapters, put it in a padded bag and sent it out into the world. It is now doing the rounds of the agents. Sure, I keep thinking about it, missing the days I spent writing it, lost in a parallel universe with my characters. But I know I was right to let it leave home.

In my experience as a writer’s mentor, I have seen many instances where overworking ends up spoiling a very good piece of writing. Sure, you have to ‘murder your children’, as they say, and cut some of the best bits. Sure, you have to cut superfluous or empty words, repetition and to keep things simple. But there comes a time when you can cut too much and may have nothing left. I am also a firm believer in the principle that often the thing you think of first may be the best and that, as Hamlet says in the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy: ‘the native hue of resolution //is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.’ It can be dangerous to think about something too much or too long.

And so, as I sit at my desk in the knowledge that we now have a spare bedroom again, I ask you to think about your writing, to let it flow, to try not to stunt its growth and to recognise when it is time to let it go.

Jo

If you like this, and would like more of the same, take a look at the Publishing Academy, where I am a faculty member. It is packed with information and inspiration for writers, just like this.

Go the extra mile

September 1, 2009

This post also appears as part of The Inspirer, my monthly newsletter, that you can sign up for at my website www.joparfitt.com.

Go the extra mile

My inspiration for this month’s article only came to me a few hours ago when I received an email from an ex-student of mine, Amanda van Mulligen. Amanda had got in touch to send me the link to an article she had written called A World of Inspiration and in which, she said, I featured. I clicked on the link and was faced not only a super piece of writing, but also an article that described how many connections and referrals I had given Amanda since we first met almost four years ago. It went on to describe how each of those contacts had become so much more, how they had enriched her life, inspired her, and even made her money. I was delighted. But my happiness was not so much for the fact that Amanda had written about me but that she had gone to the effort of letting me know. She had gone the extra mile.

And as I thought about that for a moment I realised that these days, when competition is tough, we can all do with finding ways to go the extra mile. Here are my top ten ways:

Top ten ways to go the extra mile

1 When you write an article, try to add a box of resources and further reading to the end, so that the readers know where to go to find out more.

2 When you write a book, add a substantial and useful resources section, an appendix, a bibliography and see if you can also add the URLs of all the people, organisations and websites you mention too.

3 Forging a career as a paid writer can be tough, so make it easy for those who may commission you and have your portfolio available online.

4 Publisher like to commission new authors who are more than just writers, people with a presence, a following, a route to market. So start a blog, send a newsletter, build a portfolio of other published work, poetry, articles, reviews, so that you already have Googlability.

5 When I teach, I always give my students handouts and reading lists and in my Life Story classes I now edit all their homework for them, which I then offer to share with the entire class, so that all the students can learn from it. What added bonus can you give?

6 People buy from people they have already worked with, so why not offer your potential clients something for free so they get to see you in action

7 If you coach or mentor, as I do, see if you can give your clients as much extra as you can. I always connect mine to editors, suggest magazines they could write for and introduce them to the people they need to interview for their books or articles.

8 Look out for opportunities to connect other people at all times and then do so. A simple email is all it takes.

9 Develop a ‘paying it forward’ mindset. Remember, the adage: give and you will receive.

10 Say thank you. Thank people for referrals, for work you pass their way, connections, ideas. A simple thank you encourages those people to give again.

One other person has gone the extra mile for me this month and I would like to thank her here, partly because she deserve thanks, but mostly because I think you will benefit from knowing her too.

Meet Sheila Bender

Firstly, I have long admired the work of writer, Sheila Bender. She wrote ‘Keeping a Journal You Love’ and ‘Writing in a New Convertible with the Top Down’ among many others, and my copies of her books are peppered with Post-it notes as I refer back to them again and again. I decided I wanted to connect with Sheila, to ask if I might use an extract from her books in my Life Story online program. I found her at her website Writing it Real and sent her an email. Not only did Sheila reply to me, and fast, but she invited me to write for her newsletter too, and then, knowing that many of my Inspirer recipients do not subscribe to it, she made a special link so that you could all read my article, about The Greatest Block of All. That was going the extra mile. People normally pay for her newsletter, so this was a big favour. Thank you Sheila.

I hope that this month’s offering has inspired you. I wonder how you could you go the extra mile? Perhaps you’d like to tell me by visiting this article on my blog and adding a comment? I know it would mean you had to go the extra mile, but that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Til next month

Jo

That’s jazz

August 1, 2009

Have you ever seen the 1920’s poster of jazz singer, Josephine Baker, performing at the Folies Bergères? She is wearing nothing but orange pompoms and has both arms and one leg flung high, her head at a quirky angle and her wide mouth set in a deep grin, making it abundantly clear that she is having the time of her life. Passion and soul emanate from every pore of her skin. The poster is so alive you can almost see it vibrate.
I write this column on the train from Barcelona to Montpellier. Yesterday we spent a marvellous couple of hours at the Century of Jazz exhibition at the CCCB contemporary art museum just off La Rambla. Glad of the airconditioning, we moved slowly, dipping in and out of alcoves that flanked the winding snake timeline displayed in a glass-topped showcase. It was packed with music scores, album covers and extracts from the press that told the story of jazz from its roots to the present day. Speakers played music of each period right from way back in the 19th century. Serendipitously, the first piece of music played was Gershwin’s Summertime. It did not escape me that this is the name I picked for my publishing company and chosen for its feelgood factor, for I am the kind of person who believes ‘fish are jumping and the cotton is high’. Seeing my business name up there in lights I realised that there would be something for me to learn there. A couple of display cases later I fell upon a small, faded facsimile of an article by Ernest Hopkins from the 1913 San Francisco Bulletin, its title: That’s Jazz. He wrote:

‘This remarkable and satisfactory sounding word, however, means something like life, vigour, energy, effervescence of spirit, joy, pep, magnetism, verve, virility, ebulliency, courage, happiness – oh what’s the use – JAZZ. Nothing else can express it [ . . . ] Anything that takes manliness or effort or strength of soul is “jazz”‘

As I read the words above I began to grin. The very ingredient that I urge my students and clients to add to their writing is what I have been calling ‘the wow factor’. But now I realise that my wow has its roots in jazz. Only jazz is much more than wow. Jazz makes you tap your feet. Jazz makes you glad to be alive. Jazz has an organic form that starts and ends in an interesting place and moves in loops, never straying far from its theme. Life and art and words and music take on an extra dimension when jazz is around.

The exhibition’s premise was to show the connection between art and music. We saw a crude sketch Picasso gave to Gertrude Stein of lumpen clowns dancing the Cake Walk. We learned how Mondrian’s gridlike primary colour paintings are in fact his interpretation of jazz; how Matisse, Jack Kerouac, F Scott-Fitzgerald and Jean-Paul Sartre all made jazz their own. How it influences prose and poetry and paintings but most of all how it influences people just like you and me.

Next time you are working on a piece of writing or a project I urge you to consider how you could add a little jazz to the mix. Sprinkle in some soul, passion, pep, life or verve. Add some pompoms, a flourish of genius. The Josephine Baker poster epitomises jazz. Could you inject the same vigour into your writing? Do you have the ‘manliness’, the strength, the courage to write in such a way that your reader begins to nod rhythmically as your words resonate and speak to his or her soul? If you can do that, then, as Hopkins wrote almost a century ago – ‘that’s jazz’.

If you would like to read more about Hopkins’ article and jazz then please click here.

It must be 20 years since I first discovered the words of Natalie Goldberg. In fact, her Writing Down the Bones was the first book on writing I ever bought. It blew me away. Here was a woman who was making a very nice living doing something that to many would be classed as sheer indulgence. She would go and sit in a café, ‘meet at the page’ and just ‘go’. She’d write about whatever popped into her head, inspired by the scene around her or the thoughts in her head. One sentence from her book has stayed with me ever since. It is a sentence that I add to many of my handouts. It is a sentence that makes my stomach do a little flip every time I read it out loud. Here’s what she says:

‘Begin to write in the dumb, awkward way an animal cries out in pain, and there you will find your intelligence, your words, your voice.’

Every time I look at a piece of my writing and think there is something missing I remember this phrase. The best writing should resonate not only with the reader, but with you, the writer. The best writing is emotive. I learned this to my cost last year. Let me tell you the story:

Just over two years ago I decided it was time I wrote a novel, I’d had an idea mooching around in my head for a while and recognised that it was no good leaving it there. I had to put it on the page. So, I started writing. I was quickly ‘in the flow’ and wrote 98,000 words. It was about an expat wife, a bit like me, who found herself in Dubai, just like me, and who wanted to retain her professional identity against all odds, just like me. I knew the topic well. I had been there, done that, got the tee shirt and written the books too. With titles under my belt including Career in Your Suitcase, Find Your Passion and Expat Entrepreneur, I reckoned I had the subject matter sussed. But after months of writing I received some feedback on my work and was told in no uncertain terms that I had got it badly wrong. You see, the thing is, I knew so much about the subject that I had inadvertently written a non-fiction book all over again instead of a novel.

My wonderful mentor, and much-published novelist, Anita Burgh took me to one side and said: “What happened to your poetry and your lyricism, Jo? Where did you go? It’s a story, remember?”

Well, I’m not sure where I had been, but at that moment I knew the place I had to go was back to the drawing board. I binned my 98,000 words and started again, this time from a place of pain. This time I got right inside the head of my main characters and felt their emotions not for them, but with them. In doing so, I was forced to drop my ‘portable career expert’ status and simply start telling the story. In short, I did what Goldberg had been telling me to do for years. To be vulnerable. To be awkward. To feel exposed.

I finished my novel in January, and immediately after, as some of you know, I published my first volume of poetry, A Moving Landscape. Buoyed up by the feeling of relief and freedom that I had gained from writing my novel, I was confident enough to go one step further and show the world my poems too.

I’m with Goldberg. Your best writing and your writer’s voice are to be found when you find your words not in the pen or keyboard but in your heart, your gut, your soul. If you find it a struggle to expose yourself in this way and perhaps consider it too scary, then I suggest you try writing a poem. In my experience, poetry is written from that place of pain, and when you write it, somehow you give yourself permission to be vulnerable.

It’s July. Chances are you will be taking a holiday sometime soon. My challenge to you is that you take a beautiful notebook along with you and practise writing from the soul. You never know, you may not just find your voice, you may find yourself too.

Jo

Don’t forget to scroll down to the Writers’ Resources section in this month’s Inspirer See the Workshop Diary for brief details. To catch the news when it happens please sign up to my blog. For a summary of what I’ve been writing about see the On the blog section of this newsletter.

With warm wishes
Jo Parfitt

A Place of Pain

It must be 20 years since I first discovered the words of Natalie Goldberg. In fact, her Writing Down the Bones was the first book on writing I ever bought. It blew me away. Here was a woman who was making a very nice living doing something that to many would be classed as sheer indulgence. She would go and sit in a café, ‘meet at the page’ and just ‘go’. She’d write about whatever popped into her head, inspired by the scene around her or the thoughts in her head. One sentence from her book has stayed with me ever since. It is a sentence that I add to many of my handouts. It is a sentence that makes my stomach do a little flip every time I read it out loud. Here’s what she says:

‘Begin to write in the dumb, awkward way an animal cries out in pain, and there you will find your intelligence, your words, your voice.’

Every time I look at a piece of my writing and think there is something missing I remember this phrase. The best writing should resonate not only with the reader, but with you, the writer. The best writing is emotive. I learned this to my cost last year. Let me tell you the story:

Just over two years ago I decided it was time I wrote a novel, I’d had an idea mooching around in my head for a while and recognised that it was no good leaving it there. I had to put it on the page. So, I started writing. I was quickly ‘in the flow’ and wrote 98,000 words. It was about an expat wife, a bit like me, who found herself in Dubai, just like me, and who wanted to retain her professional identity against all odds, just like me. I knew the topic well. I had been there, done that, got the tee shirt and written the books too. With titles under my belt including Career in Your Suitcase, Find Your Passion and Expat Entrepreneur, I reckoned I had the subject matter sussed. But after months of writing I received some feedback on my work and was told in no uncertain terms that I had got it badly wrong. You see, the thing is, I knew so much about the subject that I had inadvertently written a non-fiction book all over again instead of a novel.

My wonderful mentor, and much-published novelist, Anita Burgh took me to one side and said: “What happened to your poetry and your lyricism, Jo? Where did you go? It’s a story, remember?”

Well, I’m not sure where I had been, but at that moment I knew the place I had to go was back to the drawing board. I binned my 98,000 words and started again, this time from a place of pain. This time I got right inside the head of my main characters and felt their emotions not for them, but with them. In doing so, I was forced to drop my ‘portable career expert’ status and simply start telling the story. In short, I did what Goldberg had been telling me to do for years. To be vulnerable. To be awkward. To feel exposed.

I finished my novel in January, and immediately after, as some of you know, I published my first volume of poetry, A Moving Landscape. Buoyed up by the feeling of relief and freedom that I had gained from writing my novel, I was confident enough to go one step further and show the world my poems too.

I’m with Goldberg. Your best writing and your writer’s voice are to be found when you find your words not in the pen or keyboard but in your heart, your gut, your soul. If you find it a struggle to expose yourself in this way and perhaps consider it too scary, then I suggest you try writing a poem. In my experience, poetry is written from that place of pain, and when you write it, somehow you give yourself permission to be vulnerable.

It’s July. Chances are you will be taking a holiday sometime soon. My challenge to you is that you take a beautiful notebook along with you and practise writing from the soul. You never know, you may not just find your voice, you may find yourself too.

Jo

Books need a wow factor! Find out how to make your book come alive by writing effective anecdotes and case studies. Come and be inspired and empowered when I’m the guest speaker at Storyville in WC2 from 7-9 pm on 29th. Just £15. Details at http://www.thebig-leap.com/storyville.phtml