Monthly Archives: February 2012

is there a next step?

It is the lot of any artist to receive criticism.  It does not matter if you paint, write, cook, dance or decorate fairy cakes in the style of Attila the Hun or Jabba the Hut, if you create and hope to share your creations (possibly even with financial reward) then you are asking for someone to tell you what they think of them.

I have recently uploaded the first part of the current draft of The Book to various bookish sites where other writers can comment on my work.  This is not done in the vain hope that I will be spotted like Kate Moss in a shopping centre or Justin Bieber on YouTube (once I was that naive, but we will gloss over that childish whimsical phase of my writing life).  It is done purely to learn what other people think.  One cannot be completely dispassionate and objective about something to which you are closely knit (just look at all those pushy parent documentaries , or even hang around handful of middle class school gates) so I knew it was time to bare all.

The comments have been coming in.  I am truly grateful to everyone who has taken the time not only to read what I have written, but to have thought about it and given me constructive and useful criticism.    Nobody has said it’s rubbish (perhaps they are too polite or I have failed to read between the lines) so why do I feel so flat?

A sculptor cannot redraft a statue but a writer can rewrite, redraft, tweak endlessly and suddenly I can see that the road ahead is very long indeed, and unless somebody is brutally honest and says “stop right there”  I could wander along it for years believing there is an end, when in fact, in my case there isn’t.

I am not writing purely for myself.  Yes, I write because I want to, I need to, I have stories I want to tell and I have characters kicking up a rumpus in my mind and if I don’t let them out heaven knows what they’ll do.  But I also write because one day I want other people to read my books, one day I want my work to be in print, one day I want to earn hard cash from writing.  And the reason I feel flat is because I don’t know if I ever will because I’m not sure anyone will ever tell me if I am crap.

This is NOT a request for “you’re great” posts .  In fact I will not approve any such comments !  But I would like to know from other artists of any type – when and how did you know that there was a future for your work outside your own studio?





just to get the record straight

My Lenten Challenge seems to be much misunderstood.  The giving up of all purchases other than essentials is not about saving money (though I assume it will); it is not about denial (though I will be denied that which I am used to letting myself have) and it is certainly not about making agonising decisions about what constitutes an essential.

A couple of years ago I read “Not buying it” by Judith Levine (you can read her blog here (  I heartily recommend it, it is a fascinating and very personal look at our consumer culture.  It is funny, provocative, practical and acknowledges that great pleasure can be had from something quite frivolous;  frivolous does not always equal waste.

I have gone back to the book and dipped in and out of it many times.  It wafts around in the backspace of my mind and is probably the driving force behind my personal challenge.  Because it is not about what but why.

It is not about what I buy or don’t buy.  It is not about long agonising discussions about whether I can justify a dress on the grounds I need it for an event, that is a decision to be made between me and my conscience.  It is not about being given a public pat on the back for keeping my purse zipped shut.  It is not about saving money.

It is about why we need to feed ourselves with things we don’t need.  It is about making conscious decisions about our resources, and by “our”I mean all our resources, not just mine or yours.  It is about being mindful of what gives us joy.  It is about distinguishing between need and want, and between passionate desire and a passing fancy.

It is not about living without, it is about living with and knowing that what I am living with I have chosen with care.


choice, clutter and conscience

Not spending doesn’t lead to an immediate space.  That is achieved only by removal of clutter, whether material or spiritual.  As a regular declutterer I am continually surprised by how much there is to remove.  Surely I should be clutter free by now.  Yes I am freakishly organised, even my washing line has a strict hanging order (I joke not, I do not let anyone else hang out my washing).  As a child being sent to my room was no punishment, it was an opportunity for uninterrupted sorting of my sock drawer or cataloguing of my books.  However, what I appear to be doing is organising my clutter rather than actually sorting it into that which is essential, that which I desire and love and that which is superfluous and would be better loved elsewhere.

It is only day one and already I am having a conscience crisis.  I need new glasses, my first pair of varifocals are over four years old and I can no longer read with them.  I use 160% zoom on the computer and prefer to read my kindle because I can increase the font size.  It is becoming a pain.  I could have had an appointment at the opticians yesterday but it was inconvenient so I have one today, Ash Wednesday, it is now Lent.  Are new glasses essential?  I could use my varifocals for everything but reading and switch to my cheap off the shelf reading glasses when the text is too small.  I only opted for varifocals originally (before I realised quite how expensive they were) because I didn’t want to have to keep switching glasses and liked to be able to read/knit and watch television at the same time.  Ease and vanity not necessity. 

To be honest this is precisely the kind of question I had hoped to avoid.  I had intended to make a decision based on my conscience and that would be it.  This exercise was not intended to be about analysing my spending but curtailing it and analysing why I felt the need to spend and learning to love what I have not what I want.  I am already quite cross with myself for being drawn into this discussion.

But life is all about choices from tiny ones to the life changing ones.  So perhaps my Lenten challenge will be for me about how I make choices; whether I make them wisely or use good guidelines or criteria.  A quick flit though my life and I can see that when it comes to the big ones I make rapid decisions based on instinct (or bodily parts if you prefer – heart/gut whatever!) For goodness sake this is the woman who left her job, upsticked to Scotland to accept a marriage proposal from a man she had only met three times.  (Twenty years later we are still happily married btw ).  It is the apparently unimportant ones which I mull over and dissect for hours on end.  I shall purchase new glasses today but I shall be mindful of the choice I make in the purchase.

gracious acceptance

It would be hard to miss the fact that Ash Wednesday is tomorrow.  All the usual liturgical signs are in the High Street, viz.  squeezy bottles of golden syrup,  Jif plastic lemons and the ubiquitous Betty Crocker Shake to Make Pancake mix (how hard is it to mix flour with eggs and milk?)

Having been taken shopping by the dancer and the runners we have an ample sufficiency of pancake toppings and my mind now turns to the bit between Jif Lemon Day and Cadbury Creme Egg day 46 days later.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, how to make the most of Lent has been exercising my mind and I have finally come to a decision.

I am going to stop shopping. “Ha!”  I can hear you all snort from here.  She is merely dressing up the need to tame the overdraft in spiritual garb.  But seriously there is much more to this than indeed a desire to make incoming=outgoing.

I have forgotten the art of gracious patience.  I have an overflowing library; yet rather than read the vast pile of unread books that were bought with an eager heart I have found new volumes which seem more attractive, more enlightening.  Were I to knit solidly from now until Christmas I would make only a small dent in the wool stash secreted around the house, and we will gloss over the fabric waiting to be transformed into clothes, cushions and goodness knows what.  I have accessories for every occasion and I am sure for some yet to be invented.  My recent weight loss has opened up parts of my wardrobe uncharted for many years.  I need nothing materially other than food on my table and heat for our home.  Indeed even the freezer and pantry are well stocked.

I have bought because I wanted to, not because I needed to.  And if I look closely I don’t know that I can put my hand on my heart and say I really wanted to.  There have been occasions where I have stood in the queue knowing that I could live quite happily without the item in my hand.  Yet the lure of the bargain or the turn of the heel seduced me.

The runners and dancer have allowances and are careful how they spend their money.  They spend hours looking for the perfect top/pair of jeans/shoes because they know they cannot afford to make a mistake.  For them the acquisition is far more joyous and follows a long period of anticipation.  The item is valued and appreciated.

It is time I learned to appreciate the abundance I already have; time to become reacquainted with the possessions in my life and to acquire patience and gracious acceptance of what is a very blessed lot.

I am giving up shopping for anything other than essentials.  I am not going to make a prescriptive list of what is essential, for to be honest I really don’t know, which is in itself a poor indictment of my position.  However, I don’t intend to bend the rules, there is little point, for it only me who suffers if I do.  I want this to be a learning exercise, yes I am sure I will save money, but that is not the primary aim.  I am going cold turkey and sad as it sounds I know it will be hard but I hope I can reflect on what really makes me happy, what I really need to grow as wife, mother, friend, lover, daughter … and I am damn sure it isn’t another pair of shoes.

I am not doing this alone, Madamepm is coming with me and we have agreed to support and reflect together.  I won’t say I’m not nervous but I am a little excited in a tingly sort of way.


secrets and lies

I haven’t read The Help nor seen the film.  Perhaps I should because Kathryn Stockett has been on my mind quite a lot recently.

Everybody loves a feel good story, particularly one where the protagonist survives against the odds and can stand up at the end and say “Yah Boo Sucks!  I told you so!”.  With the release of the film of her book Kathryn Stockett has been all over the media and the story of her 60 rejection letters has made the headlines of magazines and blogs across the globe.  But it isn’t her collection of no thank yous from agents and publishers that has been occupying mind.  No, it’s the response from friends and family.

I am sure I am not alone in believing that if I had even a farthing, let alone a penny, for every time somebody has quoted JK Rowling at me I could give up writing or indeed any occupation and live a comfortable life on a secluded island.  But what about when the local support network turns?  Kathryn describes how friends said never mind, the next book will be the one; how people expected her to dust herself down and accept that the book wasn’t going to make it; how she pretended to be going away on a girls’ weekend and would hole herself up in a hotel for another re-drafting session.  Why did she lie?  Because friends and family stopped believing in her, but as she said in her own words, “for God’s sake, I could not make myself give up.”

Earlier still, a week or so ago I was listening to Woman’s Hour as I was driving.  I was so shocked by something that an interviewee said that I pulled over and tweeted the programme.  Clare Morall, author of Astonishing Splashes of Colour (which I loved), was being asked about her advice for aspiring writers.  She said that (a) have something else to do.  Sensible advice, we cannot eat nor pay the mortgage or rent with rejection emails.  However, she seemed to imply, although I may be wrong, that one had to have something else to do otherwise you would go barmy concentrating on something that wasn’t going anywhere.  Hmm, not so sure about that one but we’ll move on.  Her second piece of advice was to keep going on the proviso that “you are a good writer.”  If you’re not a good writer presumably give up.  How do you know if you are a good writer?  The implication was that the more rejections you got the more you should think about giving up.  How very different from Kathryn.

Earlier this week I was told that my writing was a hobby, it wasn’t a career because it didn’t earn any money and it was about time I concentrated more on the things that did [earn money] and left the writing to one side.  In other words, you have had two rejections (TWO!), you’ve had some fun now please get on with real life.

It is quite true, I have not earned a penny from a thing I have written.  Some has been published but it has not paid.  But that conversation really hurt, much more than I expected it to.  I have taken to writing early in the morning or when nobody else is around.  I have re-draft ideas swirling around my head and am making notes in secret so I don’t forget them before my next undercover writing session.  I am planning ahead, marking out days in my diary when I can have a session uninterrupted at home.  I have become a secret writer.

I cannot stop, I haven’t finished the book for goodness sake!  Just because I got to the end doesn’t mean it is done.  How many drafts is enough?  That I cannot answer, but I know the answer is not one.  What I hadn’t realised was that most people who don’t write think that as soon as you put in the final full stop that’s it; job done; move on to the next thing.  It is so much easier re-drafting than writing the first draft.  I know my characters, I know what they are going to do and how the book will end and now I can flesh out scenes, play with atmosphere, rack up the suspense.  But this has had to become a secret pleasure.

Now I must go, I have about an hour before everyone gets up and I have some writing to do.

pebbles and politics

It was a weary evening last night.  I don’t just mean I was weary (which I was) but the evening itself took on a weary quality that lent itself to a lack of activity other than the essential (breathing and a bottomless  mug of black tea came to mind).  We had returned from half term at the Mill.  It’s a 7 hour drive (including brunch stop and the opportunity to have our dogs bark uncontrollably at David Cameron, fortunately to the amusement of the police detachment) and once the car was unpacked, the washing on and the list of things left behind compiled nobody was much in the mood to do anything.

After the predictable but excellent takeaway supper from Jalsa (the chicken Makhoni and Chicken Chom Chom are musts, but the Lamb Dansak was a bit too hot for runner one) we settled down for a lazy evening of tv and twitter.  Ah the cosy home life of the Smellies. The evening’s programming looked rather dull so I picked The Choir off the shelf.  Not cheeky Gareth, but the 1995 production of Joanna Trollope’s excellent observation of life and politics in a cathedral close.

Unlike the first time around I am now a bit more knowledgeable about vestries, slypes, the secret life of choristers and what a Succentor is.  Having been the Registrar at a choir school for quite a few years and tagged along whilst the runners were choristers at the same cathedral I have viewed proceedings from both sides of the fence.

Like any drama where you have even a teeny bit of knowledge of the subject matter the runners and I did have a few niggles (no chorister elect is going to have the main solo at a major service).  But then the boss can’t watch medical dramas without a few choice corrections and we will pass quickly over the moment a character in a well-known drama went salmon fishing off a small pier and compounded his sin by using trout tackle.  We feared the implosion would lead to our very own black hole on the sofa.

However, in the main it was as good almost twenty years on as it was on its first outing.  It was good because the observations and the politics were so gripping.  Not huge gut wrenching politics but little, cleverly constructed digs and alignments, the kind that pepper our every day lives.

After some very helpful, sometimes hard but very perceptive comments by Brian Keaney on Timesmudger I took a deep breath and began an edit, which became a redraft and quite a lot of re-writing.  Without realising it I began to flesh out the petty politics and the more I did the more I began to enjoy myself.  This time I was the puppeteer not the puppet and the temptation to take revenge was overwhelming at times.  I managed to restrain myself but it made me much more aware of how life is all about politics Donne was quite right “no man is an island entire of itself”; alliances are made and broken; friendships wax and wane.  We are shaped in part by those we rub along with, like pebbles on the beach.  Perhaps we should be more mindful of how we rub because we are shaping the pebbles next to us.

stepping back

Living within my means has always been a challenge to me.  I veer from extreme parsimony to the kind of shopping extravaganzas that would make Madame Bovary shiver with fear.  Fortunately the fear of penury means that on the shopping front at least my sensible head does have the edge enough of the time to ensure food on the table and perfume on the wrists.

However, it cannot have escaped anyone other than perhaps a smattering of non doms, the odd hedge fund manager and the board of RBS, that we are experiencing straightened circumstances and purses must be superglued shut if we are to avoid financial disaster.  Although Runner One has posited the theory that we should all shop furiously in order to pull the country out of recession.  Her theory collapsed at the source of the required finance to achieve this.

I have to confess to being a little peeved to discover that the habits and tricks learned from my mother are now being written up in glossy bestsellers and sold for a tidy sum.   On the other hand I can now point out to the Runners and Dancer that it is extremely cool and trendy to get four meals for five out of a lamb roast (roast, sticky lamb stir fry, stovies and soup, if you want the recipes I accept paypal 🙂 ).  Furthermore they should be jolly grateful I didn’t cut the toes out of their school shoes when they got too small and make them wear them as sandals (as my mother did to me, I have yet to find anyone else whose play sandals were start rite crepe soled shoes with a hole cut in them).

I have been thinking long and hard about Lent, what to give up or take up.  I don’t drink anymore and am on a diet so giving up the standard chocolate or booze is no good.  I am currently reading several books at once about the desert hermits and think that is probably enough food for the soul at present.  Last year we only bought essentials and lived off the contents of the freezer and pantry with the unspent housekeeping going to charity.  All very pious  but even I will agree the latter meals were a little tiresome and there was some sneaky off list purchasing (made on a Sunday to assuage the guilt – we are so pathetic).  I had considered meat only on Sundays, that would be fine for the runners, dancer and me but would turn the boss into a raving lunatic.  Lack of challenge for us and thought of meatless boss both kiboshed that plan too.

Like Archimedes, the Eureka moment hit at a most unexpected time.  I have a morning ritual involving porridge, gratitude journal, morning pages (read Julia Cameron I heartily recommend her),  Simple Abundance (Sarah Ban Breathnach – excellent day book) and New Daylight.  A theme began to emerge.  Stand back from the material world and learn to distinguish between your needs and your wants.  Ha! I thought.  I can do that, I know the difference.  Ha! I thought again indeed you do but do you act on the difference .  Hang head in shame – frequently not.

Sarah BB suggests you stand back completely, don’t read newspapers or magazines, don’t watch or listen to the news (no Radio 4??).  For only then will you force yourself to look at yourself in a clear light and see what you can live without and what both spiritually and materially  you cannot.  Then you are in a position to develop the understanding and patience to wait gracefully for what you want.

I want a lot, far more than I need.  That is not necessarily wrong, wants are very important, they are the drivers for invention, passion and creativity.  But put diesel in a petrol car or vice versa and the whole engine dies a messy and expensive death.  Fuel your life with the wrong wants and you’ll need more than the AA to get you back on the road.

So I shall stand back.  I’m not sure if I will manage without  radio 4 completely, but perhaps the Today programme will have to go.  The papers will be hard but not impossible.  Not shopping for anything other than groceries and essentials for house and home will be very hard, very very hard indeed.  I hope come Easter Sunday I will have found grace and patience and not a burning desire to hit the Metro Centre!

future history

Can positive thinking change your life?  There is a huge market for books, seminars, online programmes, all of which promise that you can change your life by changing the way you think.  On the surface it seems perfectly plausible.  How many times have you had “the day from Hell”?  Everything that could possibly have gone wrong did and by the time you hit the sack you wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that World War Three had commenced and initial engagement would take place in your back garden.

 I’ve had plenty of days like that, but when I analysed what had gone wrong, with one or two exceptions the day was rarely any worse than any other.  The fundamental difference was my frame of mind and how I reacted to setbacks. When I looked at them as a disaster, quite possibly the forerunner to something even more calamitous I dug my muddy hole just a little deeper.  When I took a deep breath and refused to cry over spilt milk, or even better looked at them as an opportunity to do something different then my day took on a far rosier hue.

 At the risk of sounding like a latter day Pollyanna I try very hard not to be knocked back; I try to work from a position where I can see something positive, however small, in everything, however bleak it may appear at the outset.  However, positive thinking is far more than this.  Positive thinking requires you to live your future history.  To behave and believe that you have achieved you greatest dream.

 Now, it is probably no secret that one of my greatest dreams is to be a wildly successful author, to write books that children miss buses for they were so engrossed in the story.  Alongside that I would like to make a very healthy living, thank you.  Impoverished garret living followed by posthumous success and fortune is not what features on my storyboard.

It is an equally open secret that this has not yet occurred.  Numerous athletes will attest that they had lived their gold medal winning moment thousands of times before they lived it for real.  Living your future history is an accepted part of most athletes’ training.  So why is it something that so many of us look slightly down our noses at?

 I will make a small confession … when I listen to Desert Island Discs (which I do most weeks) I sometimes turn the radio down and have my own little interview with Kirsty Young; me, Gillian Smellie successful author, on how she got to where she is today.  Fortunately this usually takes place in the privacy of my own car on the way to yoga on a Friday morning.  But one day you will hear my story for real, on the radio and whilst it will be all news to you, it will be quite old hat to me, because I will have lived it many times before.

plenty of time

Until recently I was always busy, now I am considerably less so.  Life is calmer, stress levels have fallen  and I am achieving a great deal more.  Sorry, let me just run that by you again: I am achieving a great deal more.  I am really.

I am a list maker, there is nothing that (used) to fill me with a greater sense of potential than a list, a really, really long list.  Frequently I would make tremendous headway, crossing things off with a sense of superiority (“look at me, see how productive and hard working I am”) and an increasingly weary heart (except for the day Amanda introduced me to Red Bull, which was an enlightening experience but one whose repetition has been forbidden by all who had to live with me that day).  Some days I was equally busy but with things that were not on my list.  On those days I had to persuade myself that I had been productive even thought there were precious few thick black lines in my notebook (I have a book just for lists …).  Some days I did nothing at all on my list, let the day take its own shape and realised that I had achieved great things (friendship, a good book, knitting, writing as well as sometimes housework and paperwork and the stuff that keeps the swan gliding on the pond), AND I was relaxed and happier at the end of the day.

So I still make lists, but I am more circumspect.  I write down mainly two types of job.  First those things that must be done but I am liable to forget (eg ring Vet, send tax return etc) and then on a separate list those things that it would be useful to get done but are not urgent for today (eg. put away the ironing, prune gooseberries).  In the meantime I have read three books that I have been wanting to read (actually reread) for ages; spent hours playing with my mood book (a sort of mood board/picture jotter sort of book); almost finished a cardigan, sorted out a plot dead end in my next novel,  spent more time with friends and managed to fit in daily meditation and journalling every day for over a month.

The house has not fallen down, the family are still reasonably well clothed and fed and I have even done the flipping invoices.  I have stopped being busy with stuff and started being busy with my own life and I know which I prefer.