I wonder if anyone reading this, is aware of the massive on-going monument to Crazy Horse, a 19th century Native American leader, at Thunderbird mountain, South Dakota? I say ‘on-going’ because the project isn’t finished yet, although Korczak Ziolkowski, who started it in 1948, died forty years ago.
Nowadays the site has over 1 000,000 visitors a year and substantial private funding, with which it is moving towards completion. But back in 1948, it was just Ziolkowski, a mountain and a jackhammer. Plus 741 stone stairs, which he carved himself, and which he ran up and down several times a day, cranking his generator back into life every time it failed. You can imagine how things might stand had that approach continued.
And this is the point of my story.
Twelve years ago, I graduated from university with a First class in Literature and Creative Writing. A fine enough jackhammer, but nowhere near sufficient to teach me the craft of keeping a reader reading, or the structures underpinning all stories, or the gears needed to make my prose fly or reduce it to a crawl.
This is important, because without that knowledge I was pounding my own stone staircase, with my own arsenal of limited tools.
My first book, for example took two years to write as I thrashed about trying to get the jigsaw of the plot to fit together. Fast forward eight years and I wrote a book in three months.
So what’s changed? My approach changed because my tools became more numerous and more sophisticated.
Firstly, I took an online editing course, which very much like the aerial car later installed by Ziolkowski, facilitated a far more fluent approach to the monumental task that is writing a book. Now I never start a project without knowing where it’s going. Before a single word gets written, I have thrashed out a middle and end to aim for. (More about those italics in a moment.)
In the very beginning I use a whiteboard, soon afterwards I bang out a sequence of scenes in Scrivener. When I can put it off no longer, I sit down and start not writing, but directing those scenes: A does this, B must respond like that. With the frame up, it’s time to throw the canvas over and begin to actually write. Here I use ++++ (this isn’t a typo) like a marathon runner uses a squeezy sponge . ++++ keeps me banging away at the keyboard, gets me (close enough) to my daily word count. I know that the metaphor I’m grasping for, or the factual detail I need, can be filled in later. At this stage, searching for them, is an unnecessary distraction.
None of which is to say that the alchemy isn’t present. That the unfathomable gap between my mind and what appears in the sentence I’m typing doesn’t still exist. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say, until I’ve seen what I’ve written, (hence those italics).
All of which, however, is to say that my approach to writing is exactly the same as that taken by the clerk in her bank, or the accountant in his office. I turn up, on time, and I start work. And these days now I’ve taken the time to learn how to use all the tools available to me, it has never felt more exciting or achievable.
Finally, with the publication of A Midlife Holiday, I’m experiencing the profound pleasure of a job well done. Netgalley is an online advanced review. Midlife Holiday has over 130, mostly 4 and 5 star reviews. And guess what the recurring theme is? This was an easy read, this was so easy to read, I flew through it!
If only they knew! If only they knew how many stairs of stone I have trudged up and down in order to give them an easy read.
I can’t explain the madness that grips the Ziolkowskis of this world, amongst whom I include myself – because carving 70,000 words out of thin air is akin to carving a mountain. I do know, that setting out with the right equipment will ease your fevered brow. There are so many excellent resources out there. If you haven’t already, acquaint yourself with some, because if you’re going to do a job, you may as well have the right tools to begin with.
So onto that debut. A Midlife Holiday was always conceived as a trilogy and its sisters will follow over the next twelve months.
A few years ago, on my 50th birthday, I met with a group of my girlfriends for a lunch that started at 12pm and finished at 12am. Since that giddy time when we all teetered on the brink of midlife, our children have collectively grown and flown their nests, two friends have lost parents and one is struggling with divorce, which is a frightening place at fifty. Midlife is as fragile an age as any. I’m in sniper’s alley now, Helen, my fictional character says to her mirrored reflection on the morning of her 50th birthday. It’s a grimly funny statement that sums up the hard-earned humour those of us at midlife understand so well.
We are, women in particular, the sandwich generation. Stuck between parents and kids, facing, probably for the very first time, our own mortality.
Added to this mix, is the fact that a change occurs in a woman’s brain around menopause. Recent medical research indicates that the shifting hormonal balance results in a way of thinking that is less geared towards pleasing others and more focused upon single issues. This could be summed up by the I don’t care what others think anymore, so many of us know is a very real feeling.
So now we have a generation of women, aware that rehearsals are over, that this is now Showtime! coupled with a newly honed focused on pleasing themselves.
The question then surely becomes, not why I’d want to write about such an age, but rather why wouldn’t I?
(c) Cary J Hanssen
A Midlife Holiday by Cary J Hansson is out now and available to order in all good bookshops or online here.
About A Midlife Holiday:
Helen Winters is fifty and feeling lost. With her children grown and her selfish husband absent on her birthday, she regrets not taking the exciting paths she dreamed about in her youth. So when a well-meaning birthday gift reveals a depressing image of her future, she takes a leap of faith and jets off to Cyprus with two lifelong friends.
Basking in the glorious sunshine and crystal-blue waters whilst enjoying the attention of handsome men, she starts to feel truly alive. But her best friend isn’t in Cyprus for the sunshine and when Helen learns the true reason, tensions threaten their lifelong bond and she fears nothing will ever be the same again. Can she shake off the years of disappointment and re-discover the woman she once was.
Order your copy online here.