How do writers maintain morale?

A good level of morale is essential, I find, for writing.   It’s like petrol in an engine.  It fuels the hope, if not belief, that what I write will be read by more people than just my husband (he has to) and a few friends (depending on their good will).  When morale drops, I sink into a “what’s the point?”  attitude.  Then I have to re-fuel with memories of previous successes.

A car we’d bought secondhand in Stuttgart in 1962 had no fuel gauge.  When the tank was empty, you could flick a switch on the floor of the car to get petrol to flow from a reserve tank.  That would, if you were lucky, get you to the next garage.

In my writing life, I’ve frequently had recourse to my reserve supply of morale.  This morning I’m hovering near that floorboard switch.  Will our second book on Greece ever see light of day?  Will I get a positive reply from one of the many agents and publishers I’m approaching?   Fifty years after my career began, I am back where I started – without an agent.

If I link this post to LinkedIn, will it be read by a literary agent?  There must be one or two out there who would like to be involved with “Life in Greece in the 1960s”.




Preview opportunity – follow links

Below, I’ve put a couple of links to the first couple of trial spreads for The Garden of The Grandfather.  I’d like to be able to reproduce PDF files on the site,  but I haven’t yet discovered the way to do that.

In the time it takes to fiddle with these things, I could have finished writing the book by now, and saved myself many extra white hairs.

Intro, The Garden

spread 2, The Garden

Dickens didn’t work hand-in-hand, chapter by chapter, with his illustrator

I decided to have a page on this site with work in progress.  The book in question is The Garden of The Grandfather.  When I started – and isn’t this always the way – I didn’t realise quite how difficult it would be to write in public.  I imagined it would be like writing instalments of a novel which could easily be polished up once I’d reached the end.  I was thinking of the Victorians, particularly Dickens, who wrote his chapters fast and fluently  to meet magazine deadlines.  What a huge number of chapters he wrote, too!  But, apart from his talent and ability to write at speed, he didn’t have to think of, or allow for and dovetail with, the shape, layout and illustrations.  A heavily illustrated non-fiction book takes a different kind of thought; a much slower process than writing fiction, at least as far as I’m concerned.

Another difficulty in writing in full view of your audience, as it were, was my way of writing, which is constant revision.  I cannot re-read a paragraph without fiddling with it.  How anyone managed before typewriters, I cannot imagine.  Now word-processing makes it so easy to fiddle.  Perhaps we’ve lost the composition skills of earlier generations who wrote with quill pens and got it right first time.  Or were their wastepaper baskets full of ink-splattered scratchings out?  Come to think of it, I wrote my first six novels on a typewriter – and I didn’t use that much paper.  I conclude I’ve grown less able to get the sentences right with my first shot.

Despite difficulties and a fornight of thrashing around with Peter, deciding the relationship and proportions of illustration to text, I feel I’ve reached a good halfway stage in the book.  From here onwards, it will be easier to know where I’m going, and approximately how many pages it will take to get there, and whether we’ll have done our life in Greece justice.

A new writing experiment

Aged 18, I decided that the first step on the way to becoming a writer was to learn how to type.  So I did a secretarial course at Plymouth Technical College.  We sat in rows in front of the epitome of a perfect secretary (grey-haired, retired and precise) and clacked away on tall and ancient typewriters.  Each machine resembled the auditorium of a theatre in miniature: 1234567890-+~ in the Upper Circle, down the rows to \zxcvbnm,./ in the front row of the stalls.   Clickety clack clack, at increasing speeds over the months, punctuated with the satisfying ding! at the end of lines, signalling the need to push the lever on the left to make the paper roll up a notch on the cylinder.  Who remembers this?

Typing was easier to learn than shorthand.  But the puzzles of shorthand held one compensation.    There were wonderful letters in the book of exercises: polite but pained requests for attention, addressed to clearly recalcitrant Dear Sirs, referring to orders not fulfilled.   The writers awaited the dear sirs’ earliest attention.   I found that, even when I couldn’t read my squiggles, I was able to compose a letter from memory.  This served me well when I was taking dictation from one of the editors of Thames and Hudson.  “Did I really say that?” he would sometimes ask, with a quizzical eyebrow raised.

Unlike shorthand which I’ve never since used, the ability to type fast without looking at the keyboard has stood me in good stead.  Even if I don’t need to glance at it, I find a keyboard is still vital for getting words from the brain onto paper via a screen.  I cannot abide the virtual variety on smartphones and tablets.  I watch with amazed admiration people who can hold a phone and pump out messages, using their thumbs like manic grasshoppers.

Although I’m not at home with phones, I’ve kept up with the developments in typing.  In the mid 1980s I invested in something called a Screenwriter, which was a Rolls Royce of a typewriter which had basic word-processing capability built in.  I found it useful for writing the text of the book Peter and I did together about the landscapes, flora and fauna of Greece.

Then came the Amstrad.  In my memory it sits on my desk in our house in Papingo, north western Greece, looking like a squat, extra-terrestrial creature, blinking green messages from a screen the colour of butterscotch.   During the 1990s, my writing tools became more sophisticated as computers developed.   I’ve written on a series of desktop computers, as well as laptops taken to New Zealand and France.

My present desktop I’ve had for many years.  Its box – tall and black – hums beside me, holding a labyrinthine memory of all my wild goose-chases.  It’s recorded everything I’ve written since the 21st century began.  I rarely bother to back things up.  I print out any work I would hate to lose.   Now I’m experimenting with a new way of writing in parallel with the old way.  Each time I complete a section I print it out.  I also copy and paste that section onto a page on my website.   The text of my present book – The Garden of The Grandfather – is mounting up on a Page of that name on my site.  As yet, I’m not sure how this will work out.

I can see the dangers.  It is a first draft, so perhaps it shouldn’t be shared publicly like this.  (But who’s going to read it?  Just a few special friends.  I don’t expect my website to be found and followed by many).  Another risk is that I can never run my eye over anything I’ve written without wanting to make it better. That means that my website copy may not be exactly the same as the one on my computer or the one I’ve printed out.  All this could lead to an unholy mess.  But never mind – all can be corrected when I’ve arrived at the end of this piece of writing.  Whether it will ever be traditionally published is a question with a large question mark.  I’ve been writing too long to be really bothered about that.  What I have in mind as an end product is something interactive – something that can be played,  read, listened to, looked at.  A new kind of book.    That is my new experiment.

A creative hot-spot

The Garden of The Grandfather

I’ve never delved deeply into ley lines.  Today I’m wondering how people with creative energy might kick off extra creativity in themselves and others at particular points in the compass; that is, over and above the usual energy that’s generated between creative people when they meet.   This thought comes from a recent coming-together of three people – Yiannis Angelopoulos, Peter and myself – in Lourdata, Cefallonia.  The conjunction of the three of us on one particular spot set something exciting in train.  Here’s the triangulation.   Peter found something he wanted to sketch.  Yiannis video’d Peter sketching.  I was hooked by the sign on the gate of the garden Peter was sketching.

The sign gave me the title for the book I’m working on: The Garden of the Grandfather.  This will be a picture of Greece in the 1960s, a narrative of our life there illustrated by black and white photographs.   Conversations with Yiannis have expanded our ideas to include colour – Peter’s work in oils, ink, and watercolour.   Yiannis’ video is now on youtube.   Something good to share publicly must surely come out of this triangle of ideas.

p.s. I have now added a page on the site for the first 10,000 words of the book.



Dreaming up our second Greek book

(photo by Yiannis Angelopoulos)

possible cover of a book in the making

title: ‘The Garden of The Grandfather’
a picture of Greece in the 1960s in words, photographs and paintings

by Peter and Susan Barrett

I’m debating with myself whether to post here regularly the narrative of this book as I write it.   Although I keep polishing as I write, the posts will not be up to the standard of the final version of what I hope will be the published book.  The debate will continue …

Brainwaves in the sea

The Garden of The Grandfather

While gently floating in the Ionian sea – or was it in the midst of a nighttime dream – the title of our present Greek book came to me.

The Garden of The Grandfather

These words – Ο κυπος του παπου – are written on a sun-bleached sign hanging from a padlocked gate behind the beach in Lourdas Bay.   Beyond lies the garden, a fenced-in enclosure where an old man grows  potatoes, tomatoes and green peppers.  At the far end there’s a small,  white-painted shelter on  stilts with a magenta-coloured bougainvillea framing its roof against the backdrop of Cefallonia’s Mount Enos.  Peter sketched the scene and I began to write in my head the introduction to our book of Greek life as it was in the 1960s.

This morning, at ten o’clock on July 11th 2017, I am at my computer in Devon.  But in my head I am overlooking the bay of Kamares, Sifnos, in 1963.   I am summoning up memories of the summer when I wrote my first attempt at a novel and Peter painted large canvases in oils built up with sand from the beach.  These were exhibited at the Drian Galleries, London.  (I want to track down the catalogues of his four exhibitions at the Drian.  Can anyone help?)

The workings of the brain and the memory are in a world of their own, very hard to grasp.  I plan to re-read “The Human Brain, a guided tour” by Susan Greenfield.  I used my brain in an attempt to understand what she wrote.   My memory of the details of her book is hazy.   Yet I know I took in her expositions and they inform my views.   This brings me to consider the difference in Peter’s memories and mine of the same events.   I remember, if not the exact details, then the general drift: the atmosphere of a scene or the personality of a person.     The way I remember is, I think,  more typical of a female, but it’s also a writer’s way.   Peter’s memory works in a masculine,  fact-focused way.   Being an artist, his memories are also visual.    These differences work well together as we remember our life in Greece in words and pictures.  The eventual book, I hope, will evoke that delicious, sad-happy feeling of nostalgia, appealing to lovers of Greece of any age: the past still visible in the present.

Now back to ‘The Garden of the Grandfather’, not the actual one in Cefallonia sketched by Peter this summer but to our work-in-progress.   Back to Sifnos and lighting oil lamps at dusk in 1963 …

Asleep in the sun

Tomorrow we’ll be back in Greece.  Hot sun, whitewashed stones, and the need to seek shade for a deep sleep at siesta time, as this stonemason managed  on a ledge in Myconos town, 1963.     And we’ll be cooling off …

At Sea

… in the Ionian sea, as in this illustration from the spoof SB Guide to Nature, Notes and Sketches from the wilder regions of our world.

Greek island travel in the 1960s

Who remembers the Greek island ferry boats of the 1960s?  Peter and I first arrived on the island of Sifnos in the Cyclades in April 1963.  That was the start of our life spent painting and writing for a living.  We are now retrieving  memories of our early years in Greece helped by the photographs we took at the time.    We kept the negatives.  With toay’s technology it’s possible to turn these into digital images which can also be printed.  Our past is brought into the present.  Greece is still our favourite subject for painting and writing.  If only our youthful bodies could re-appear too!