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Insights from the Changing Room

(Some parts of this post were first posted on the ERWA blog Oct 2014)

 

Tuesday morning. 8:00. I just finished a brutal kettle bell workout. I’ve gone up in weight, and I’m seriously feeling the
love. I won’t even tell you what I look like as I walk into the shower room. Suffice to say it’s not a pretty sight. I don’t see much in my state of exhaustion. I fumble through my locker for my shower things and fresh clothes then stumble to the stall, where I strip off adjust the water and lean against the wall, wondering how I’m going to lift my arms to wash my hair.

 

I linger there because I can, because I work at home and home’s not going anywhere. All around me the changing room is a beehive of activity and my sense of smell is overwhelmed by myriad scents of deodorant, shower gel and various other olfactory efforts to disguise the scent of humans. Most of my fellow gym-goers have stopped in for an early workout before they head to work.

 

Once I’m clean, I join the ranks of the frantic in the changing room. While I admire the women of all shapes and sizes who seem completely comfortable being naked in front of everyone, I’m embarrassed to say, I’m not one of them. I’m fit. I’m strong, and I look good enough that people can tell I work out. But my body shows the wear and tear of being my vessel for a lot of years. It has served me well through the abuse of the youth I thought would be endless. Better still, it has (and still does) allowed me to experience some truly marvelous adventures and some amazing loving. At some point I’ve come to accept that I’ll never look like I’m twenty again. And the sad truth is that I was far less satisfied with my body when I was twenty than I am now.

 

The gym I go to is unpretentious, and it has a great mix of all ages and of people who are fit and people who are brave enough to thrust themselves into an environment where they can become fit. Most, like me, will know the joy of what becoming fit does to all other avenues of life. I’ve not come to that knowledge late in life, I’ve always felt more myself when I’m strong and healthy. BUT fitness and health rarely translate to the washboard abed, bulging biceped males we see posed on the covers of erotic novels nor the high, firm breasted, rounded bottomed women who frolic on the pages in between those covers.

 

Even now, as I watch woman unselfconsciously flitting around the changing room with pert tits and exquisite arses naked or in sexy underwear as they blow-dry their lush long manes and make themselves up to perfection, my stubborn brain is green with envy. This morning there seems to be a larger than normal bevy of pert breasts, tight bottoms and flowing locks as I slink to my locker and dress as quickly as I can so no one will notice that my tits are not that perky. As for my arse, well, do to a genetic trait in my family, I don’t actually HAVE an arse. I’ve spent my entire life tugging up my trousers and sitting on bone and gristle.

But I digress. As I shove into my clothes and run a quick comb through wet hair, not lingering for a good coiffing nor to put on the make-up I seldom wear, I can’t help feel that I should apologize for being neither coiffed nor pert. The nasty voice in the back of my head, says ‘at your age, who cares?’  And I protest that I look pretty damned good for my age. In truth, no one in the changing room notices anyone else, and no one judges in the frantic effort to get to work on time. My only judge is me, and sadly, I’m a bit harsh at times.

 

God! I battle those internal voices all the time. You’d think I’d get past them at some point. But I don’t. You’d think that writing characters who are less pert and less wash-boardy would be my way of shaking my fist at heaven, of cursing the fact that at my age – god how I despise that phrase! It feels like a “get out of jail free” card for every shortcoming that I had no excuse for when I was younger because I have now reached that magical age – whatever the hell that might be. BUT I digress again! Here’s the shocking truth. I don’t look twenty-five anymore. You’d think I’d make sure my characters don’t look it either. But nooooo! I constantly toy in my imagination with characters who may not exactly look like they live in a gym, but on the other hand, seeing them naked would be close enough to chocolate for the eyes to make my mouth water.

 

All good characters need a life beyond looking hot, otherwise they’re boring, and the only thing worse than a character with flabby abs and a flat arse is a character whose biceps or tits are the most interesting thing about them. I confess, I write what I wish was so. I write what I’m convinced readers wish was so. I write who we wish we could be, and who we wish would be so attracted to us that they’d lose sleep obsessing about shagging us senseless. I write charactersthat look like youth has decided to linger awhile longer with them than it does with most of us. Of course I’m happy to throw in some good genetics for nicely rounded bottoms and a proper amount of pertness. I write nice bodies, AND do my best to make them interesting too. I WANT IT ALL!

 

I live vicariously through the characters I write. Through them my tits are perfect and my arse is magnificent.

Through them, I am the obsession of the wounded hero who is both intelligent and a fine specimen of manliness. Are all these a sign of my neurotic shallowness? Or are they, perhaps a sign that I’m old enough to recognize what I’ve lost, what I’ve left behind. I’m old enough to understand the price everyone pays for living in a body long enough to experience enough life with all of its joys and sorrows and bashings about to look a little worse for the wear. I’m old enough to know that what I don’t reveal in the changing room at the gym says enough about the wounded character that I am, says enough about my numerous and openly admitted neuroses to remind me again that the sweetest things aren’t pert nor washboarded, nor nicely rounded. The sweetest things are all the experiences in between the best my body was when I was twenty and the best my body is now. Am I making excuses? Perhaps. Would I still like to be pert and properly rounded? Hell yes! Is my reality and the fantasies I create as a writer any less textured and rich because of the lack? The truth is, that it’s probably richer for my flat butt and semi-pert tits. But perhaps I only say that as a way of compensating for my envy of youth and beauty.

 

On the other hand the place inside me that lives to fantasize, to create, the place inside me that lives for story isn’t subject to the passing of years. And what comes out of that part of me is, more often than not, a way of dealing with my darkness, my self-doubts, my occasional tango with self-loathing. It’s my way of reconstructing them into something that feels better against the raw places, the places that are afraid and uncertain. It’s a way of being less cowardly in the knowing that I, like everyone, must deal with my own mortality as best I can. And sometimes the best way is writing stories with heroes who have nice abs and even nicer pecs and heroines who are round and tight in all the right places. Strange that I never actually see those characters, those fine specimens of physicality, in my mind’s eye, though I know that some writers do. But I feel them from the inside out. That way I know that they’re, in some ways, a testament to my irrational need to be forever young and yet at the same time to cling to the experiences that seldom happen in youth, but are always required to make us more than a collection of body parts that are pert today and sagging tomorrow.

 

Voyeur or Body Thief?

From the archives

One of the most intriguing parts of story for me has always been the way in which the reader interacts with it, more specifically the way in which the reader interacts with the characters in a story. I find that interaction especially intriguing in erotica and erotic romance.

 

To me, the power of story is that it’s many faceted and it’s never static. And, no matter how old the story is, it’s never finished as long as there’s someone new to read it and to bring their experience into it. Like most writers of fiction, I’m forever trying to analyse how a powerful story is internalised, and why what moves one reader deeply, what can be a life-changing experience for one may be nothing more exciting than window-shopping for another.

 

In my own experience as a reader, there are two extremes. I can approach a story as a voyeur, on the outside looking in from a safe distance, or I can be a body thief at the other end of the spectrum and replace the main character in the story with myself.

 

One extreme allows the reader to watch without engaging and the other allows the reader to create sort of a sing-along-Sound of Music- ish experience for themselves. As a reader, I’ve done both and had decent experiences of novels doing both. As a writer, however, I don’t wish to create a story that allows my reader to be a voyeur or a body thief.

 

As a writer I want to create a story that’s a full-on, in-the-body, stay-present experience from beginning to end. I want characters that readers can identify with and are drawn to but don’t necessarily want to be. I want a plot that feels more like abseiling with a questionable rope than watching the world go by from the window of a car. I want to create that tight-rope walk in the middle. I want to create that place in story where the imagination of the reader is fully engaged with the story the writer created. That place is the place where the story is a different experience for each reader. That’s the place where the story is a living thing that matters more than the words of which it’s made up. It matters more because the reader has connected with it, engaged with it, been changed by it, and the story continues to affect them long after they’ve finished reading it. In that place, the story and the reader are in relationship. Neither can embody the other, neither can watch from a distance. The end result may be a HEA, the end result may be disturbing and unsettling, but at the end of a really good read, the journey to get there is at least as important as the end result, and the result is on-going beyond the final words.

 

Erotica and erotic romance are by their nature a visceral experience. Though I think that’s probably true of any good story. I don’t think good erotica can be watched from a distance any more than it can be the tale of the body thief. While either will get you there, there’s no guarantee that the journey will be a quality one. And I want a quality journey. I want to come to the end of a good read wishing I hadn’t gotten there so quickly, wishing I’d had the will power to slow down and savour the experience just a little longer. I want to come to the end wondering just what layers, what subtleties, what nuances I missed because I got caught up in the runaway train ride and couldn’t quite take it all in.

 

A good read is the gift that keeps on giving. Long after I’ve finished the story, the experience lingers, and little tidbits that I raced through during the read bubble up from my unconscious to surprise me, intrigue me, make me think about the story on still other levels, from still other angles. When I can’t get it out of my head, when I find myself, long after I’ve come to the end, thinking about the journey, thinking about the characters, thinking about the plot twists and turns, then I know the story has gotten inside me and burrowed deep. There was no pane of glass in between; there was no body for me to inhabit because all bodies were fully occupied by characters with their own minds and their own agendas. The experience extends itself to something that stays with me long after the read is finished and makes me try all the harder to create that multi-layered experience in my own writing.

 

Writing Badly? Permission Granted!

img_0082Being deep in the throes of NaNoWriMo right now, it’s not unusual that I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of writing and what makes it work. Why is it that sometimes the words flow and other times they just don’t? The first time I realised I might be able to exert some control over that flow, that I might be able to do more than sit in front of a keyboard and hope the Muse would take pity on me, was when I read Natalie Goldberg’s classic book, Writing Down the Bones. There I discovered the timed writing. It’s simple really. You write non-stop for a given amount of time. You write against the clock, and you don’t stop writing until time runs out. No matter what! You write whatever comes without fretting over whether it’ll be good. And when you’re done, some of the end result – even a good bit of the end result – might be crap. But mixed in with that crap might just be the seeds of something wonderful.

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At the time I felt like I’d been asked to write with my left hand. Even writing for five minutes seemed like a daunting
task when I made my first attempts. But Natalie Goldberg knew what she was talking about. I was amazed at what came out of the abyss between my ears! It was only after I read Writing Down the Bones that I began to write real stories, and I think about that process of writing, just writing, no matter what comes out so often when I do NaNoWriMo because writing a novel in a month is never going to be pretty. But out of it, something truly wonderful can come. I know this because I’ve had two published novels from NaNoWriMo, and I’ve tackled both of those month-long races to the end as though they were a series of thirty gigantic, drawn out, timed writings.

 

So why did one book make such a difference? I finally had something I lacked in the past, something very important. I had permission to write badly. Every writer needs permission to write badly. Later Julia Cameron, in her book, The Artist Way, called those off-the-cuff, devil-may-care writings morning pages, and she prescribed three morning pages every day – written without forethought, written in haste. From a fiction writer’s perspective, she didn’t give them the weight that Natalie Goldberg did. They were only a part of a plan to open the reader to the artist within. To her, they were more about venting, sort of a daily house-cleaning for the brain. In addition to morning pages, Cameron insisted that every creative person should give themselves what she called an artist date once a week. An artist date was a date with oneself away from writing.

 

the-artist-wayI can’t count the number of times I stood myself up for my artist dates. I would have broken up with me long ago if I were actually dating me. But then I realised that an artist date didn’t have to be dinner and dancing or shopping or even visiting a museum. An artist date was a change of pace. It could even be ironing or weeding the garden. In fact the whole point of the artist date was to create space in which I could disengage the internal editor, engage the wild, creative part of my brain, the part full of ‘what ifs,’ and then, to give myself permission to write badly.

 

So many of us are under the impression that every word we write must be precious and worth its weight in gold. What I’ve learned since I discovered the pleasure of writing badly is that on the first draft, every word is most definitely not precious. On the first draft, every word is a crazy frivolous experiment. Every word is a chance to test the waters, to play in the mud, to let my hair loose and run dancing and screaming through the literary streets. Every word is a game and an adventure. Every word is eating ice cream with sprinkles for the main course. By the same token, every word is shit, every word is compost, and every word is the ground out of which the next draft will grow. I never know what’ll work crest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76until I try it. I never know what my unconscious will come up with while I’m writing like a wild crazy person, grabbing words and cramming them in and rushing on to the next ones – just after I’ve done a basket full of ironing. Without that bold and daring first draft, without opening the floodgates and letting the words spill onto the page, there’s nothing to work with when the next draft comes. And when the next draft comes, the words do get precious. Every single one becomes weighty and irritable and reluctant to fit anywhere but the place it belongs, the place where I feel it just below my sternum like the point of an accusing finger.

 

But by the time I get to the second draft, by the time I get to that place where every word has to be perfect, I’m up for it. I’m ready to slow down and feel what every word means. I’m ready to find all the nuance and all the cracks and crevices of meaning in between the words. I’m ready for it because I’ve only just been playing up until now, and I’ve been allowing the words to play. And now … recess is over.

 

The longer I write, the more I realise what else, besides Natalie Goldberg’s timed writings and Julia Cameron’s reluctant artist dates, gets me there. And what gets me there is often totally being somewhere else, somewhere other than writing. Sometimes it’s playing the piano badly, or sweating at the gym, or weeding the veg patch. Sometimes it’s walking through the woodland not thinking about anything. Sometimes it’s reading something frivolous. Sometimes it’s writing-pen-and-birds-1_xl_20156020reading something profound. All the space that taking time not to write opens up inside me makes room for that wild
ride of the first draft. And when that first draft is finished, I have what I need to pick and choose, to sort through and sift, to change and rearrange until I find the best way to tell my tale. But up until then, it’s child’s play. It’s dancing naked. It’s shameless abandon and multiple verbal orgasms.

 

To all my lovely writing friends valiantly struggling through NaNoWriMo this year – in fact to anyone who has a story to write, let me just say this.

 

Writing badly? Permission most definitely granted!

 

Final Draft Tunnel-Vision

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After a week of being totally tunnel-visioned, I’m stepping away from putting the final touches on the final draft of a novel long enough to whip together a quick blog post with one hand while I shovel food into my mouth with the other. I can’t focus well enough to pull something out of the archives to be shared again, so the best I can hope for is some ramblings that may or may not be too navel-gazey and hopefully will be coherent enough that it won’t leave you lot scratching your heads.

 

The thing about a novel as opposed to a short story is that I’ve invested a lot of life into it. In this particular novel, I’ve invested more than usual, and it feels very close to my heart. What that means is I’ve lived a long time with my characters, with the love and the conflict and the problems and the pleasures of the world they live in. They’ve revealed their secrets to me, and I’m at home with them. I’ve watched them run around the kitchen in their underwear and seen them toss and turn in their sleep. I’ve even peeked inside their heads and seen their dreams. I know what they love and what they hate. I know what pushes their buttons. I know their fears and their hopes. I’m comfortable with them, but I’m not so comfortable with the fact that I’ll have to leave them very soon. That’s the purpose of a final draft, after all. It’s the end that makes room for new beginnings.

 

It’s been hard work. The final draft is always intense and focused at the expense of almost everything else – including regular meals. When it comes time for that final rewrite, I’m gone. I’m seldom on social media, I barely manage my emails, and I disconnect from the outside world as much as possible. That’s especially true when a final draft coincides with my husband being away on business, as it does this time. A final draft is a part of the writing experience like no other. It’s not the runaway train excitement, watching the story unfold of the first draft. It’s a journey deeper into the caves and crevasse of the plot and into the dark inner workings of the characters and the story. It’s the deepening, the broadening, the true KNOWING of the novel and the characters that I wrote at break-neck pace in their first draft Writing pen and birds 1_xl_20156020incarnation. The final draft is total obsession, and when it’s done, that means there’s serious withdrawal. While I’m anticipating the finished draft, I’m also dreading it. There’s always a period of bereavement that follows, and the empty nest that must be dealt with before it can be made ready to refill with a new beginning. But the letting go is hard.

 

In the meantime, I’m tired and I’m strung out, and I’m too much in the world I’ve created to be of much use to anyone outside it. Dinner’s finished. Drinks are refilled, and I’m back at it! I’ll see you with a new Shameless Selfie on Sunday.

 

Inspiration On the Hoof

The best walks, like the best writing, happen when I end up in places I never really expected to be places I didn’t even know were there. That’s exactly what happened this past Saturday. With plans to spend the afternoon in the British Museum, I tagged along with Raymond to Regent’s Park, where he does martial arts training every Saturday until early afternoon. We planned to grab a sandwich then catch the Sicily exhibit before it ended. I figured I might as well get some walking in, and Regent’s Park in July is a great place for a walk.

 

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I sometimes forget how amazing London parks can be for long walks, addicted to the countryside as I am, but that means that when I go back to London, when I just follow my nose and let my feet take me there, I find myself totally enthralled.

There were babies everywhere, and mums showing them off. I got some really up close and personal shots of a lovely mallard family:

 

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And a crèche of coots.

 

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I couldn’t really tell family groups, and coots and moorhens, like humans, have asynchronous hatchings, so the chicks vary in size.

 

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And of course there were plenty of human fledglings there as well. One delightful little girl, who looked to be maybe three or four, was prancing around the rose garden with her mum and dad sniffing roses as she went and actually commenting on the different scents or lack thereof. I didn’t take a piccie of her. Thought her parents might not appreciate that.

 

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Besides the fledglings, there were also some gorgeous grown-ups there as well. I only got shots of the feathered kind though. Didn’t want to be stalky. 🙂

 

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There were lovely little hide- holes and romantic waterfalls and lots of places to be inspired, as I let my feet take me deeper into the park

 

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As often is the case, I ended up thinking about nothing at all really, just inhabiting the space and moving through it at an observer’s pace. I’ve long believed that you never really get to know the soul of a place unless you explore it with your soles. For every little place I did explore, there were at least a dozen I had to pass up. Next time! … and the time after that …

 

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After awhile, I found that the hard exploring had left me in need of caffeine, so I got coffee with an extra shot (to keep me going) and thought I’d find a quiet place on the grass to sit and read. Didn’t happen. My coffee and I discovered the Regent’s Canal and the Jubilee Greenway! The canal is 13.8 kilometres long and is connected to the Grand Union Canal on one end and the River Thames on the other. I’m already envisioning more fabulous walks in my future.

 

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Apparently every summer when the weather heats up, there’s a bloom of green water plants. Couldn’t help but wonder if that’s why they called it the Greenway. But it did lend a very different ambience to the canal.

 

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BTW, that house there opposite the Tui, that’s my dream London writer’s retreat. Also I think it just might be the inspiration for a place Magda Gardener might have in London. The woman has cottages and flats everywhere, you know.

 

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I discovered the Regents Canal is an art gallery of sorts, with Dr. Manhattan looking rather thoughtful while enjoying a soft drink.

 

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I headed toward Camden Locks reminding myself that my time was limited. But promising myself I’d be back.

 

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Sadly I was a bit late for the market. Next time! The place was fascinating, but a bit to crowded for this introvert — especially when she’s trying to walk, so I turned back toward the park.

 

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Along the way I found this reminder that at one time the canal was for more than just fun, and it certainly was no fun for the horses!

 

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The best part of the canal on the Camden side of the park is there’s a wonderful mix of urban decay and pure romance. What more could a novelist ask of a good walk?

 

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I reached the point where the canal turns under a bridge and leads back past the zoo. The Chinese restaurant was tempting, if for nothing else its fabulous location!

 

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The canal meanders past the aviary of the zoo and while this isn’t my best photo, imagine my delight when I was greeted by a tree full of ibises … er ibi???

 

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Sadly I didn’t get as many photos on the zoo side of the canal because I was trying to cover as much distance as I could before it was time to meet Raymond. As much as I enjoyed the Sicily exhibit at the British Museum — and I do highly recommend it, from an inspirational point of view, at least for me, the walk was the best bit of my day. It was only a little niggle of a walk that demands more – lots more, but it left me feeling refreshed and open to the Muse and her big stick. Sometimes walking a story actually becomes just walking to open myself to what’s beyond the blinders I often wear as a writer focused on my work. Whether I’m walking the story or whether I’m walking to be renewed, from an author’s point of view, from a human point of view, a good walk never disappoints.

 
© 2017 K D Grace
The Romance Reviews

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