Writer’s Loop and needing to break out

exploding ideas instead of writer's blockI’ve called this blog Writer’s Loop because that’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.

It’s a bit like being a mad inventor. You sort of know what you want to do, need to do, are desperate to have done and left behind…

But somehow you can’t stop tinkering. Try one more experiment, one more plot twist or character revelation. And a bit of you has started to believe you will never stop.


Woman overwhelmed by mouth-coloured letters

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

First, a few words about how this all started. Lockdown played hell with my confidence. Then, in recent months I’ve had several perfectly ordinary setbacks.

There were health issues, practical problems I had trouble solving, de-cluttering I couldn’t get a handle on…

Then, more recently, a stressful situation arose where I felt totally helpless.

But the underlying Writer’s Loop problem is that in all that time I have been juggling two books.

One “just needed a quick final edit”. The other is a new departure for me. I’ve done research on it till it’s coming out of my ears. I get up in the middle of the night and write down scenes from it. I’m obsessed. And terrified.

Hellish Loop

woman tearing hairNote that this is not Writer’s Block. I write all the time. Writer’s Loop really is Writer in a Loop, ricocheting between two novels and terrified of both. Yet I can’t leave either one alone.

Logically, I should pick one and stick with it until it is done. I even tell myself I will. And then I start editing, manage a couple of pages, feel overwhelmed and then get really scared.

Not get a brilliant idea. Get scared. So then I save MS1 and open NOTES FOR MS2. And round I go again.

It’s stupid. It’s Sisyphean. Sisyphus, you will recall, was the Greek chap who pushed a stone uphill until it got to the top and then it rolled down again. For eternity. In hell.  They knew their onions, those ancient Greeks.

Overwhelmed Writer

shadowy man running away round cornerA couple of weeks ago, in a blog about pen names, I referenced Mary Burchell. It reminded me that I wrote an afterword to her autobiography when it was republished as Safe Passage under her real name Ida Cook in 2008. She, I recalled, had written memorably in that book about the awful feeling of being overwhelmed. I went back to my copy and, indeed, to a blog I wrote about her in 2010.

It was salutary. For Ida’s moment of feeling overwhelmed came, not from writing her books, but from terror about her life-threatening activities in Germany in the thirties, helping Jews leave the country. It certainly put my own night terrors into perspective. Caught in a Writer’s Loop? Pish tush. She had faced suspicious armed officers of a country whose laws she was breaking. And she went back time and again.

Mary Burchell – Romantic Novelist

We’ve mentioned her before on this blog, but mostly in passing. She deserves better. The following is drawn from that earlier blog.

Moth Anniversary memoir of RNA

Fabulous at Fifty edited by Jenny Haddon and Diane Pearson

Mary Burchell was one of the brightest stars of Mills and Boon from 1936, when  her first novel, Wife for Christopher was published, to her death in 1986. She wrote for Mills & Boon, in particular the much-loved Warrender series, set in the world of opera.

She was Chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, notable for doing a major reconciliation job on the organisation after it tore itself apart in the mid-sixties over media sniggers at anything with “romantic” in the title. As I found, researching those early years, she was very much loved – warm, generous, affectionate, a party girl, a bit of an eccentric and a woman of principle.

“I am a born romantic”, she told the RNA, on taking up the presidency.  For her, romance was “akin to optimism and the determination to make the best of things, and has taken many people over dreary difficulties and prompted others to dare the impossible.”

She knew of what she spoke. For, from 1934 to the start of the War, she had been daring the impossible in a big way, helping Jews to escape from Nazi Germany.

Ida Cook – Quiet Heroine

Ida and her sister Louise were a couple of opera-mad civil service typists in the 1930s, pretty much groupies, indeed. They regularly stood in line at the stage door of Covent Garden and got to know several musicians personally. In 1934, the Romanian soprano Viorica Ursuleac, asked them to take care of Madame Mayer-Lismann, official lecturer at the Salzburg Festival, during her visit to lecture in London. It opened their eyes. For Mayer-Lismann was Jewish and had stories to share.

Ida wrote, “We didn’t know – imagine!  We didn’t know that to be Jewish and to come from Frankfurt-am-Main already had the seeds of tragedy in it.”

Dresden opera house, floodlit at night

Image by Paul Steuber from Pixabay

With the help of Ursuleac, and her husband, conductor Clemens Krauss, the sisters made several weekend visits to Germany, ostensibly to hear operas that Krauss was conducting, but in reality to help refugees. Ida, by now writing full time, started to raise funds, first from friends and contacts, then through speaking to groups. She had never done anything like it before and was very shy to being with.

She and Louise kept going back to Germany and Austria while they organised British guarantors for the people they helped and, just as important, smuggled out jewels and furs so that the refugees would have something to live on when they arrived.

Ida was often afraid and appalled. “‘Sometimes we thought we could not bear to go back into that hateful, diseased German atmosphere.” But if they faltered, the friendship and support of Ursuleac and Krauss got them going again.

The Benefactor

Woman at old-fashioned typewriter, half in shadow, with leaded windows behind her.In Safe Passage, she writes, “At the very moment when I was making big money for the first time in my life, we were presented with this terrible need. …. it was much the most romantic thing that ever happened to us. … If we had always had the money we might not have thought we had anything to spare.

But I still had never handled more than five pounds a week in my life, and suddenly my income was rising to five hundred, eight hundred, a thousand a year.”

She continued to support refugee charities after the War and for the rest of her life.

And, when she bought a flat in Dolphin Square, she would give a summer party there for her fellow romantic novelists. After her death, accounts of those magical evenings, in the RNA Newsletter, remembered her throwing open her arms and saying, “I love you all.”

Ida even once led a select expedition of RNA members to Paris, where they met Ginette Spanier who made them very welcome. They all had a convivial meal together.

Madame Spanier, Directrice of the House of Balmain and Jewish, was a long-standing friend of the Cook sisters. She and her husband, Paul-Emile Seidmann, had fled Nazi-occupied Paris by bicycle. One sees what she and the Cooks had in common.

The Loop Breaks

woman in grey blouse, long sleeves, hands on laptop keyboard

Image by Bartek Zakrzewski from Pixabay

So this brings me back to my starting point. I was stuck in the worst sort of Writer’s Loop and saw no way out. Breaking away to look for (let’s be honest) reinforcement of my neurosis, I’ve actually been brought up short. Dear Mary Burchell, as her RNA colleagues called her, has given me much to think about, along with a well-deserved kick in the pants.

I’m going back to that editing task now, and I’m not breaking out of my Writer’s Loop to look at MS2 until it’s sodding well finished.

e-reader stop micro-editing, writer's loop

Oh, and did I say MS2 is set during World War II? I’ve already got Roy Plomley’s autobiography in which he recounts fleeing from Paris as the German Army advanced in 1940. He’d been working on the Poste Parisien, the International Broadcasting Company’s Paris radio station.

Now I shall be ordering, Madame Spanier’s autobiography that covers the same period.

Well, you didn’t expect me to pass up a research opportunity as well, did you?

Sophie Weston Author


12 thoughts on “Writer’s Loop and needing to break out

    1. Sophie Post author

      Thank you, Christina. I feel much better about everything now. Yes, Mary Burchell was clearly a total star.

  1. Liz Fielding

    Like Christina, Sophie, I’m delighted that you’ve broken out. Mary Burchell is inspirational – everything the romantic novelist as heroine should be. Risking all to help refugees, a peace-maker and, having seen so much, to be so full of love. I wish I’d met her.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Me, too, Liz. Mary Nicholls remembered her as very charming and full of fun. And Di Pearson, who took over from her as President admired her a lot but I’m not sure whether she knew her all that well.

      I was a member of the RNA during some of her Presidency. But in those days I had a full time job and never got to meetings, sadly.

  2. Joanna

    Must say that I’m in awe of Mary Burchell’s bravery and commitment. And she does sound to have been an amazing woman. Sadly she was long gone when I joined the RNA. So glad her example has helped you to break out of your loop, Sophie.

  3. lesley2cats

    Inspiring blog on all counts, Sophie. I remember reading your blog about Mary Burchell – when you also introduced me to Eva Ibbotson. I’ve got a lot to thank you for.

  4. Sophie Post author

    Thank you, Lesley. They were both pretty special, I think. Not just as writers but as courageous people.

  5. sarahmromance

    Thank you for the brilliant blog, Sophie, and how brave of you to write about Writer’s Loop. So glad you have now broken out of it and I am looking forward to reading the results!!!!!

    I feel very honoured to be able to say that I have met Mary Burchell. She was President of the RNA when I joined in the very early 80s. I had only just been published and was visiting London for my very first RNA meeting. I was very nervous and knew almost no one. I shall never forget her kindness in greeting me and wishing me well. Her kindness and generosity has stayed with me all these years. She was definitely a very special person.

  6. Susan Allan

    I did not know that Mary/Ida had been so involved in the 1930s, going back and forth to Germany to help people escape. What an incredibly brave woman. I started reading her books in the mid 1960s, when I was barely a teenager. I did have a vague memory that she’d been at the helm of the RNA – your blog brought her to life – thanks so much.

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