A Lesson from Crete

I was halfway through my lunch when the beetle arrived.

At least I think it was a beetle. The length of my palm and the width of two fingers, black and shiny and so very loud as it hovered behind me on tiny wings. 

HOVERED. BEHIND ME. WITH WINGS.

(Some context: I was recently on holiday in Crete. We landed into the chaos of Chania airport late at night, and had a stomach-churning drive across winding, mountainous roads to Rethymno. The locals drove recklessly, overtaking on single lanes, speeding into the night as our car clung to the hard shoulder.

Within a few sun-kissed days I realised everyone was warm and welcoming. Their hosting prowess extended to food: at our first restaurant we were stuffed after the starters. As it turns out, you get free desserts in most places. And raki. Amazing.)

Back to the winged monstrosity…

We’d stopped at a taverna overlooking Lake Kournas for lunch. It was a hot day – as it had been every day of our holiday – the sheen of sweat coating my skin like a personal wetsuit. The occasional hot gusts of breeze provided little relief.

LakeKournas

The view of Lake Kournas from the taverna, Crete

We’d ordered the usual starters, and grilled lamb and moussaka as mains.

Then the beetle arrived.

I shrieked, hunched my shoulders, leaning as far away as I could without actually leaving my chair. A lone middle-aged Greek man at a table nearby chuckled into his beer as the waitress scurried over. 

When she saw the gigantic insect that was definitely about to land on me, she laughed.

“Just a beetle,” she said reassuringly.

“Just?!” I spluttered.

“A special beetle,” she added. “See its tiny wings? How can such a big beetle fly with such small wings?”

It veered closer and I flinched. The waitress gently wafted a menu at the beetle, and it finally droned off. I slowly straightened, alert for the next attack.

“Do you know the answer?” she prompted. When I shook my head, she beamed. “It can fly because it doesn’t know it’s big.”

I forced a smile to hide my confusion, and caught the Greek man nodding at me wisely.

As I picked through the rest of my lamb, I turned her sentence over and over in my head, struggling to make sense of it.

But now that I’ve been thinking about the expectation barrier, I understand.

The beetle flies because it thinks it can fly. It doesn’t stop to worry about its grotesque body size or simple matters like physics. It doesn’t worry about failing. It just flies.

And me?

Lately I’ve been so worried about failing, that I haven’t even tried to write. But who cares if I have tiny wings, and may never attain the heights of Philip Pullman? I need to put that out of my mind, and just write.

The Expectation Barrier

In elementary, I played the piano.

I loved it. The sound of each note, the click clack of the keys beneath my fingers. My feet could barely touch the pedals. I would listen to music and ache with an intense hunger to know how to make something so beautiful. But I dreaded recitals, performances.

In middle school, I started horse riding.

I grew to love the smell of leather, the tack room, the soft velvet of a horse’s nose. The freedom I felt when riding, how my stresses were trampled away under thundering hooves. But my riding instructor wanted me to compete, said there was no point riding otherwise.

In high school, I did cross country.

This time, I knew it was a competitive sport. I knew that the goal was to run fast, to win the race. But once again, I didn’t see it in that way. I loved the harmony of my limbs moving together, the adrenaline spike after a long run. I hated the timers, the metrics, the comparisons.

Today, I don’t play piano, I don’t ride, and I certainly don’t run.

Today, I write fiction.

I love the adrenaline rush of a new idea, of new characters unfolding. I love the freedom, how it burns away my stress. I love writing those climactic scenes that make your heart ache.

Writing gives me everything my previous hobbies gave me, and more. It’s the ONE. It matters.

Yet… I stopped writing recently.

Why?

Last month I talked about the lies I told myself: that I didn’t have time to write. I realise now that it’s my responsibility to change the status quo, and part of that will involve holding myself accountable.

Thinking back, I fell out of love with the piano, riding and running once they became competitions. Once I became good enough that either those around me — or I myself — began to expect more. Once I realised that I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. That I might never be as good as I wanted to be.

Every time I’ve set myself targets (x number of words per day, finish the novel by this date, etc) — I’ve hit a wall, and failed.

And now that I’ve been struggling to write, I wonder: have I hit this same wall? The barrier of my own expectations, the pressure to win?

Perhaps.

So I’m going to start small, and promise myself one thing: Tuesday night is writing night. It doesn’t matter how many words I write, or which project I work on.

I’m not here to win anything; I’m here to rediscover why I love writing.

Because, after all, writing is THE ONE.

The Lies I Tell Myself

I’ve been lying to myself.

We all tell lies, little stories, versions of the truth that comfort us somehow.

We justify our behaviour. Tell ourselves we don’t care about something because we’re afraid of losing it. Tell ourselves we’re more important/prettier/better than someone else, because we know we’re not.

Me? I’ve been lying to myself about not having the time to write.

The little story I’ve been telling myself is that there are two sides to me:

  • Writer Anna, a creative daydreamer who loves stories and romance
  • Work Anna, an efficient, no-nonsense print production manager

In the last few years, my job has grown rapidly. The more success I have, the more responsibility I’m given.

Yet this eats into my mental energy. By the time I step out of the office, my brain has turned to mush. I’m drained; I cannot face writing.

That’s why I haven’t been writing, I tell myself. No time, no energy. There’s nothing I can do about it.

That simply isn’t true.

I see authors on twitter juggling jobs, kids, partners, friends and writing without batting an eye. If they’ve found a solution, why can’t I strike that balance?

The truth is, “it’s a scheduling conflict” is a far more comforting story than “I’m lazy and/or lack motivation”. (Ironic, really, given that my day job is all about workflow management…)

Yes, work is tiring, and I need to pay the bills, and I need a social life… but it’s a lie to say that I’m doing everything I can.

Ultimately I have two options:

  1. Keep lying to myself, and pretend there is nothing I can do to change the status quo.

  2. Or admit that however I ended up in this creative rut, this dry spell of blank pages, it’s my responsibility to find a solution — because no one else will.

Now, let me get those schedules out…

My Top 9 Bookish Pet Peeves

Please tell me I’m not crazy.

While browsing for an airplane read in WH Smith, I started thinking about books and reading habits — along with my top pet peeves.

(Yes, I think about these things. Not crazy, I promise.)

From least offensive to most offensive, here are the worst offenders:

  1. Stickers on book covers
    Because they NEVER peel off properly. Ever. Particularly those neon yellow 3 for 2 stickers. Who wants white fluff on their book? Grrr…

  2. Weirdly shaped books
    Living in a one bedroom flat means space is at a premium. I don’t want books that stick out of my shelf at weird angles, it messes with my OCD.

  3. Movie covers on books
    I’m not a huge fan of having someone else’s vision shoved in my face, or of carrying around an obvious advert. I’ve wanted to read The Martian for a while, but didn’t buy it due to the huge Matt face. Sorry, Matt.

  4. Being interrupted whilst reading
    This youtube video says it all.

  5. Folding the corner of a page
    Your innocent little fold will eventually develop into a tear, and the corner of that page will be most forever. Bookmarks exist for a reason!

  6. Cracking the spine
    Even worse than the page-folders are those who fold books in half whilst reading, irreversible breaking the spine. Besides being unsightly, the glue bonding the pages to the spine wears down and pages eventually fall out. YOU ARE KILLING THE STORY.

  7. Writing or highlighting text
    Thou shalt not write in books unless for study/exams. Do not distract future readers with your underlining and margin-scribbling. Even the Kindle popular highlights feature drives me mad.

  8. Books in (grubby) toilets
    Even worse than visible damage is the secret world of germs. I don’t want a poo-y book, damp and festering with mould. Bathrooms are the antithesis of libraries!

  9. Book thieves
    If you think I’ve forgotten about that book you “borrowed”? I haven’t. I never will. You’re on the naughty list for life.

So what’s the verdict — am I crazy?

If you’re guilty of any of these sins, fess up! Or let me know if you have another pet peeve to add to the list.

On Book Reviews

GoodreadsReviewer I received an email today informing me that I’m one of the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads.

After my initial wooohoo! — who doesn’t love unasked for praise and sexy badges? — I had a sudden thought: I haven’t written THAT many reviews, have I?

Turns out I’ve written 331 reviews since joining Goodreads in November 2008.

I admit: an average of 40+ reviews a year is considerable. (Most of it is down to my 3 year stint running a book review blog.)

BUT… Goodreads has more than 40 million members. That means there are at least thirty-nine million six hundred thousand people who write less reviews than me, if I’m doing my maths correctly.

As an author, I hunger for reviews of my work. They give me warm fuzzies! (To anyone who has ever reviewed my work: THANK YOU!)

While I’ve always known that few people review, thinking about the actual numbers is disheartening.

How huge is the long tail of book reviewers?

And what can we do to encourage more people to review?