This morning I wandered through the winding alleyways of Dubai’s spice souk. It has been here for years, but now that the city has become a tourist magnet, some things have changed for the better, others not.
The spices used to be displayed in rough hessian sacks or dusty plastic bags. Today, they are cleverly displayed to be at their most attractive, or should I say ‘tempting’? I was tempted. Who could blame me? The bright orange of the sunflower petals you can see above, flanked by pink hibiscus and rather unnatural blue lavender is, frankly, startling. Perfect sacks stood to attention, shoulder to shoulder. There was yellow turmeric root, tiny red peppercorns, baby bonnet capsicums and pale slivers of dried garlic glistening like mother of pearl. I guess I must have lingered for about half a second before the shopkeeper leapt out of his doorway, silver scoop in one hand, plastic bag in another, ready to help me.
“How much?” I asked, pointing to the dried limes I had fancied experimenting with for a while but did not know where to buy in the Hague.
He rolled his eyes and tutted slightly. “No problem,” he answered. Of course. “How much you want?”
Every time I asked the cost of one mystery item his response was the same: “How much you want?”
“Little,” I said. “Only a little.”
Within a few minutes I had five almost weightless bags, neatly stapled closed to protect the colourful contents and prevent me from changing my mind.
“How much?” I asked again, opening my purse.
He pressed a few buttons on a desktop calculator and turned it to face me.
“75 dirhams!” I exclaimed. “Too much!” I had lived in Dubai for almost ten years a decade or so ago. I know when I am being ripped off.
He pressed a few more buttons, flipped the calculator in my direction and showed me a reduced figure.
Now it was my turn to tut.
And so we continued, the price dropping a few cents at a time until it reached a level at which I was prepared to settle. There was a queue of customers behind me, all carrying their own brightly coloured weightless packets. All grinned at me, glad that I had paved the way for similar haggling.
I walked out of the shop with my head high, delighted with my conquest. Stepping out into the sun, I crossed the road towards the creek where I would catch a water taxi to the other side. The cost one solitary dirham – about 20 cents. This was one aspect of the city I loved that had remained a bargain.
My experience this morning is typical of the kind of thing that inspires me to write. My story demonstrates my belief that life story writing benefits from a dash of what I call SPICE and what I teach at length in my Write Your Life Stories program.
SPICE stands for the following:
See if you can spot how I used each of the ingredients of SPICE in the piece above.
I write this post from on board a cruise ship on which I am travelling around the Arabian Gulf. The boat rocks slightly; constantly in motion. Each day we dock in a new port and go ashore to explore. We are always on the move.
Yesterday, we sat in the clifftop garden of the Crowne Plaza hotel in Qurm, close to where I once lived with my family, and looked down at the beach below. The shallow waves moved in and out, back and forth, like breath. It was a public holiday and Omani boys played football barefoot on the sand. The photograph may look static, but when I pressed the shutter there was constant movement.
As a writer, I have always recognised the beauty in a bird in flight, a passing train, and people watching from a table outside a cafe. The following piece was inspired by motion. It appeared in The Hague Online where I am writer in residence and was my February column.
I tried skiing just over 10 years ago. I tried it because we were living in Norway and there was a lot of snow to enjoy. I’d never much fancied skiing before and felt bad about my general sporting inadequacy, so I gave it a go. And I hated it! I’d never much liked going downhill on a bicycle. I don’t enjoy crossing humpbacked bridges, and I never did like ‘losing’ my stomach. My instinct had been to avoid skiing. It had been right.
Today, I tried bikram yoga. I love yoga but was a little wary about the idea of doing it in an oven. I don’t like sunbathing. It is simply too hot. Besides, ladies aren’t meant to sweat, are they? I am not known for my patience, so the thought of a class that lasted not an hour but an hour and a half, also had me jittery. I’d be itching for the comfort of my office well before the end of class. Yet, today, I agreed to join Lisa at the local studio. If so many folk were raving about it, I had to give it a go.
I woke early, my heart pounding with the combined fears of having to hold the warrior pose in the heat and not being able to get to my desk before 11.30 am.
One step into the room and I knew I’d made a mistake. You could have sliced the air with a knife. I wished I’d been wearing a sleeveless tee-shirt and shorter shorts. There were men in the room, already glistening with perspiration, who wore just their swimming trunks and were lying flat on their backs in the corpse pose.
“If you are a first timer, your only goal today is to stay in the room for 90 minutes,” announced our lithe instructor, whom I noticed did not actually join us in the postures, she just walked about smiling and telling us what to do.
Staying in the room was tough. Particularly as we were not allowed to take in any water to drink. Apparently, it could make our stomachs hurt if we drank.
Anyway, again, my gut had been right. I did hate it. I half-heartedly followed the instructions while, in another compartment of my head, I wrote this blog post. I learned that no, suffering was not a good thing. I realised that for me, in life as in writing, my motto remained: ‘if it feels good do it, if it is easy to write, write it.’
Years ago I knew that non-fiction and poetry came easily to me, so I wrote it. Sure, I beat myself up about the fact that I was taking the easy road, and that I would be worthier if I wrote short-stories, investigative journalism or an academic thesis. Writing a novel is not as easy to me as writing a non-fiction or poetry, but I love doing it. Academic writing is not easy and not pleasurable, so I don’t do it.
As a writer, is it worth forcing the words to come if they simply don’t want to flow?
No. I don’t think so.
Does suffering make you a better writer, then?
No, I don’t think so. Not if you don’t enjoy anything about the process at all.
By the way, in case you think I am just a lazy, fat couch potato, I do like some exercises – powerwalking, normal yoga and bellydancing are great!
If you are a writer, like me and want to write, then sometimes, just sometimes, you need to learn to say NO.
I don’t know about you but I find saying ‘no’ one of the hardest things in the world. When a potential client or a magazine editor ask me whether I would like to work with them or write for them, I find myself agreeing not necessarily because I would like to but because I can. I physically can. I understand their needs. I believe I would be the best person for the job. I want to work with them and I am genuinely interested in their project. The thing I never seem to consider is whether I actually have the time to do the work. And so I say ‘yes’ when really I should say ‘no’. And so I spend even longer at my desk. I work weekends. I wake up earlier in the mornings thinking about all the projects I am involved with and meanwhile the paper monster continues to pile things up on the two huge desks in my office and now, all over the floor.
I expect some of you will find this scenario familiar. But then, I expect, there are others who are smiling smugly because they learned the magic N word and they are happily selective about their work.
Last month, I found the person I had been looking for who could really help me to make my resolution a reality this time. I had the pleasure of enjoying a swapsie coaching session with Kate Cobb of Moving Forward Your Way who works with women entrepreneurs. She spent half an hour coaching me on my biggest dilemma and then I spent half an hour helping her to get cracking on writing her books. My dilemma was that I really needed help deciding what to weed out of my life before I was in threat of drowning under a pile of paper.
“What if you wrote a list of all the things you really want to do?” Kate suggested.
“But I want to do ALL of them,” I moaned. “I love everything I do. I just don’t have time to do it all.”
“Have you thought of outsourcing?” she asked.
“Already doing it,” I replied with a glimmer of that smug look on my face. Then I went on to tell her of all the things I am now outsourcing, things at one time I would never have dreamed of handing over. In the last six months I have started to use a virtual assistant to look after my databases, my diary and the marketing of all my workshops. Without doubt, this has changed my life. In his great book, The E-myth, Michael Gerber explains how outsourcing only really works when we outsource work that we also know how to do ourselves. In that way we can control and check their work with confidence. I could tick that box too.
I’ve outsourced to a selection of editors and proofreaders for a while now, and though I still like to check their work to ensure the clients are getting great service, this too has alleviated my work burden while giving clients the benefit of two pairs of eyes on their writing. I outsource the tutoring part of my Write Your Life Stories program to someone who does a terrific job and now I’ve started hiring people to do PR for my books too. I use an intern when I can get one and as my son is on a gap year and is a great writer, I have him proofreading and making book trailers. I guess I have good reason to be smug. I really have stopped doing it all myself.
“So why do you think you are still too busy?” Kate prodded, gently.
“Because I still can’t say ‘no’,” I mumbled. And then Kate proceeded to prod and probe a bit more until I had admitted that maybe I did enjoy some work more than others and that maybe I found some parts of my job more stressful than others and that maybe I was continuing to agree to projects because I could rather than because Ireally really wanted to do it.
“Let’s look at this another way . . .” Kate continued . . .
And as our session continued I recognised that maybe one of the reasons I have difficulty saying ‘no’ is because it makes me feel uncomfortable when others say ‘no’ to me. Saying ‘no’ feels like rejection.
But then it hit me. It wasn’t just about outsourcing. I hated to let people down. I hated to say ‘no’ to people because I knew how it felt. Kate helped me to decide that from now on I would only work with the people to whom I knew I could add the most value – to the expats writing memoirs; the expats writing for expats. This is where my incredible network and knowledge base, built over 23 years, really comes into its own. Now, when I apply my ‘expat’ filter to the jobs that come my way, it is easier to make the decision to refer some potential clients elsewhere. I recognise that it’s not just about outsourcing, but also about referral. Kate was right. There was another way to look at things.
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