Pain, creativity and snowdrops

After my last blog post, which was about leaping into 2016 ready to squeeze the most out of every minute, I went to bed on 31st December and essentially didn’t get out of it for the next week, in fact, until this morning. Not out of choice. First there was a random flu bug I thought I had winningly avoided whilst R and LG coughed and snorted through December. I shook that off with my usual concoctions of lemon and ginger, and epic amounts of garlic. But then things took a nasty turn..

Okay – just a pause here to say I too can hardly believe I am taking up your time by telling you about my illnesses. That I have become THAT person. But bear with me, because honestly it’s sort of relevant…

I got a migraine that lasted five days. Five days and nights of extraordinary pain and vomiting bile and generally feeling like waste at a nuclear incinerator. Migraines are not for the faint hearted, and someone who survives a five day one without taking their afflicted noggin out to a passing fairytale woodchopper (or Lars Mytting) and asking them to do the right thing should at least get a medal of some kind. Now, I am here, normal as can be, but yesterday I was in the wasteland.

Being the kind of person who has been to the doctors once in ten years, I was pleasantly surprised by how lovely and efficient they are. I was whisked up to an Acute Unit at my local hospital where they took bloods and talked about a CT scan (but I was bit scared). The NHS – jeez, I mean, really. It’s incredible. All that care for free. Yeah, I sat around in a waiting room for a long long time clutching my head, but at least I didn’t have to sell my house to pay for the care. It blows my mind every rare time I use the service and I do wish people would just say how INCREDIBLY LUCKY we are to have a free health service even if it gets it wrong sometimes. In my case, there was plenty of kindness and an urge to help me get out of my fathomless pit.

And eventually, as I had hoped, the migraine went away, just the last hints this morning. There were a few ‘silver linings’ about my time over on the Dark Side – yes, actual good stuff came from a migraine!!! One was that I couldn’t sleep much at all because of the pain so I would lapse into these strange snippets of sleep where I had the most extraordinary ‘dream’ visions – I was a bee flying directly inside a flower; I knew how to completely dissect a human cadaver; I could see a whole family in close focus talking and all their thoughts and feelings kind of running around amongst them; at one point I was flying, another swimming. All very visceral experiences. Other times I was writing; I could see the words flying across the page in front of me though I was lying motionless in bed. I drew pictures, detailed anatomical drawings of plants and animals. I heard scripts play out. It was as if a door had opened somewhere in my mind. The only drawback was that it was continual and insistent, a bit like tuning into another frequency of gabbling noise and activity, and I could only lie there in bed and sweat through the early hours.

Frida Kahlo broken column

I got to thinking of Frida Kahlo and her terrible, bed-ridden days tortured with pain, but how vibrantly creative it made her. Those virile pictures that seem to scream with injustice and rage and presence – hear me ROAR. It made me wonder about pain and whether it takes us into a deeper consciousness, or a more creative consciousness. I don’t know. It’s also mind-fuckingly awful and sometimes it’s just so bad you can’t think. So.

Anyway, the other good thing is this wonderful feeling of freedom on the OTHER SIDE. I felt so much joy to see a little snowdrop this morning; to sip a tea in my sunlit kitchen; to tickle the cat’s whiskers.

Life’s beautiful pleasures, and I guess if I’d leapt into 2016 as I’d planned I wouldn’t have stopped to smell the roses in quite the same way this morning.

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Leaping into 2016

For me, the new year unfolds at JUST the right time. I’ve eaten my body weight in Cadburys, I’ve slopped around on the sofa and woken up late, postponed work stuff, and generally slithered deep down the rabbit hole of bloated inactivity. And all of a sudden, I’m done with it. I want to get out there, get active, engage with the world. I’m champing at the bit to catch up with work deadlines, to write stories and articles, to draw and get creative, to go for a run…

happy new year 2

As soon as January 1st is on the horizon, the shops are full of healthy foods, running kit, and magazines featuring the usual commandments to make this year your most productive yet. For those of us who haven’t signed up for a marathon yet, well what are we waiting for eh?! Of course, it’s just another day on the calendar and I do resent the fact people are made to feel bad if they’re still in reflective winter mode and not really ready to go leaping into life clad in fluro lycra. As ever, there’s plenty of pressure to be perfect.

And yet, I think if we take what serves us from all the new year blethering, we can really find the thrill of the new. For myself, I have made all kinds of commitments – to my career, to my health, to my family and to myself. I have committed to getting more writing actually finished and out there this year (I will also hopefully be writing a column about this – more soon). My illustration business is crying out for an injection of activity and love so I will be tending to that with loving attention, pruning back what hasn’t worked and growing what does. More prints and cards for 2016! I want to make sure that the time I spend with my son is focused, loving and attentive, and for that reason I will be continuing with the brilliant parenting course I took towards the end of the year with Dr Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting – if you don’t know her work and you’re a parent, get yourself to her website quick sharp for a dose of amazing, heartfelt, super wise advice.

Health-wise, it’s time to shake off the cobwebs and get active again – I always feel 100% better when I have a regular exercise routine and spend plenty of time outdoors climbing trees with the LG, and running with the dog. I sometimes feel that I need the festive period of gorging and slobbing to remind me how scrappy this lifestyle makes me feel: when I’m exercising I sleep better, make more wholesome food choices, and just seem to get more out of life. The feminist in me has always railed against the ‘body perfect’ but over the years I’ve come to realise that being lighter and fitter is more than just looking good in a pair of jeans. It just feels good to be strong, bouncing joyfully and energetically through life.

Other commitments include my regular meditation and weekly yoga practice which helps me be a good parent, good partner, and good me. This has also helped me work on my crippling sense of self doubt and given me the tools needed to be less anxious and more positive about what I have to give. A dream is to be able to get away to the fantastic North Devon writer’s retreat space Retreats For You at some point this year, and spend a glorious week writing. I spent an inspiring long weekend here in 2013 and loved being nourished with excellent food and good company. It perfectly suited my writing body clock too – I like to write late at night into the early hours and then lie in, something that’s impossible with a pre-schooler, so a retreat is on my 2016 wish list. Other commitments include more time with the people who make my soul sing – my dearest friends who bring radiance and intrigue to my life and make me laugh until my bones ache.

I’m so excited about what 2016 has in store. It’s time to put down the Dairy Milk and leap into the Milky Way of dreams – who’s joining me?!

Solstice wishes

Happy Winter Solstice! This has always been one of my favourite times of year, when the energy turns inwards and we can start reflecting on the year that’s gone, and our hopes for the year to come. It’s a time for quiet musing, if you can snatch a bit of time from the craziness of festive preparations. Which is exactly what I’ve done this evening.

This Winter Solstice has asked me to let go of my idea of how things should be, and to allow them to simply be. See, I wanted to go into Brighton for the annual Burning of the Clocks – a part of the festive celebrations I look forward to with huge anticipation as thousands gather to enjoy a fire on the beach and mark this important date on the calendar. But R is up in London watching football, and the Little Guy was completely adamant that we weren’t going to go into Brighton. ‘No, Mummy,’ he said, when I suggested it. ‘It’s too wet and windy.’ It has been wet and windy today – we’ve had a foiled attempt to fly a kite whilst walking the dog and came home soaked and downhearted – but weather isn’t something that normally curtails our plans.

But I had to listen to the LG, and the idea of forcing him to trek into Brighton with me on the bus when he really didn’t want to seemed foolish. He’d only have ended up crying, and it would have been an experience much like our kite-flying adventure – nice on paper but rubbish in reality. So I accepted that one of my favourite festive experiences was off the calendar this year. Not without some grumbling, mind you. And I still feel gloomy about missing it. But I have also taken the lesson to focus on all that’s lovely and good about my life right now, without the need to fill it to the brim with experience.

So, tonight I will light a candle and reflect on all I have to be grateful for. I’ll remember my successes and reflect on the past year’s challenges, wondering how I can make next year a bigger, better version. The last few months have brought with them some interesting developments in my writing career, and allowed me to begin pursuing the things I really want. I have done a 12 week parenting course that has changed the way in which I approach my most important role in life, and helped me be a kinder person all round: not just to my family, but to myself.

It wasn’t the Winter Solstice celebration I had planned, but perhaps a quiet night at home being grateful and at peace is just what is called for before the frenzy of the coming days kicks in.

As the days become longer, may all your dreams and hopes for the coming year gain the energy to grow into something magnificent.

Seven ways to deal with rejection

It’s been a frenzied month of moving house and acquainting ourselves with a new locality. R is still protesting about how many books I have, and how he has to move them from house to house. But I think we will, finally, be staying put for a while so my books can settle on to their new bookshelves. We’ve moved seven times in the last ten years and we’re weary of the upheaval: time to rest for a bit.

I haven’t had much time to write. My desk is in temporary situ in the hallway and piled with papers and mess – my version of an utterly unconducive workspace. And in the background to the move, I found out that several entries to short story competitions didn’t make the grade for the long-list, and a few articles I pitched to magazines with huge enthusiasm weren’t picked up. The distraction of moving has proved a tonic – I haven’t had time to dwell – but I have been musing on the nature of rejection. Rejection is part and parcel of a writer’s life. In ten years of writing I’ve experienced my fair share. Those who protest otherwise are either ridiculously talented (and even that isn’t a guarantee of rejection avoidance – dig into the pasts of some of the world’s most celebrated writers and you’ll find plenty of rejections), or incredibly lucky. But I think we shy away from talking about rejection because it’s so uncomfortable. So in the spirit of luring the beast out of the cupboard and holding it up to the light it prove it just ain’t as bad as it’s made out to be, today I’m blogging my seven ways to deal with rejection:

  1. Be kind to yourself: In the words of essayist Anne Lamott; ‘Take yourself through the day as you would your favourite mental patient relative: with great humour and lots of small treats’. Too often our inner critic leaps into action after a rejection and starts telling us all the reasons why we shouldn’t have put ourselves out there in the first place. If you’re reeling from a rejection (‘I put so much into that novel; how can they not see that?!’) be gentle with yourself. Speak to yourself as you would a writer friend: you wouldn’t start telling them that their writing was awful and of course no one would like it, what were they thinking? (Or at least I hope you wouldn’t.) Re-read something you’re really proud of; seek out a comment on your work that makes you feel good; remind yourself that you are a writer with a unique take on the world and your writing will find its place eventually.
  2. Don’t take it personally – Easier said than done, I know. Writing is such an intensely personal experience. We lay ourselves bare, and after digging to the depths of our psyches to create vivid fictional worlds, rejection can feel like a very personal attack. To maintain sanity, you need to separate yourself from your writing, even if that story you wrote was a bit like sawing off an arm or a leg and sending it out into the world. Maintain a sense of humour.
  3. Use it as an opportunity – It’s rare as a writer that we can say unequivocally that a piece of writing is absolutely ready. The flip-side of this is perfectionism which can ultimately hold us back, but if we have had a rejection we can use it to revisit our work. Often, when entering competitions (or pitching a proposal), we’re working to a tight time-frame and miss the opportunity to do a re-read a few months later to hear our writing with fresh ears. Read your work aloud; listen carefully to the rhythm, to the dialogue. Cut out extraneous words and even extraneous characters or plot lines. Revisit a feature proposal to see if you can find a fresh, more insightful, angle. Tighten up a synopsis. Rewrite the opening page of your novel.
  4. Get back out there, immediately if possible – Many writers I have spoken to over the years give up after their first few rejections. I’d say this is why so many writing careers grind to a halt before they’ve even got started. I’ll admit this makes me really sad, because many of those writers have been excellent at the written word but totally crushed by rejection. I find that the best thing to do after a rejection is brush yourself off, do whatever you need to do to bolster your confidence (see number 1), and immediately get your writing back out there. It doesn’t matter if you ‘fail’ again; what you’re doing is the equivalent of getting back on your bike after falling off. Reassuring yourself that you are still a writer, still committed to being part of the literary world. If your novel has been rejected by a few agents, scour the Writers and Artists Yearbook to find some more. Send your feature proposal out to different publications. Don’t give up.
  5. Frame it logically – You’ve likely read a book that you thought was absolutely breath-takingly good and passed it on to a friend who hated it, or vice versa. (This happened to me recently and I could hardly believe my friend could not see the magic of the book – we enjoyed a long and passionate argument about it!) Competitions and feature proposals are judged by individuals with their own personal tastes. Just because they don’t like your work doesn’t mean someone else won’t – after all, one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure. However, don’t use that as an excuse to build a wall of superiority – ‘they don’t understand my profound wisdom’ etc. – as this cuts you off from growing as a writer. My writing tutor once said that all the writers she saw go on to publication were those willing to take criticism of their work and act upon it. See number 3 – use the rejection as a chance to hone and send it out to someone for whom you think your work will resonate. And if your work is really niche, send it out to the niche publications who will ‘get it’.
  6. Reframe the experience – Crap things happen, that’s the nature of life. It’s how we respond to them that matters. Take your rejection and make it into something positive: you sent your work into the world, woo hoo! You now have a chance to revisit your story. You’re learning all the time and a writing life is a constant education. You made connections with the literary world – someone, somewhere read your work. You’re a writer: just like nearly every other serious writer out there, you have your first/third/hundredth rejection letter.
  7. Write because you love it – Fill your cup in whatever way feels right for you, and come back to the page with an open heart. Let go of the negativity and tap into your well of creativity. Write because it makes you feel good. Write because it makes you come alive. Write because, as Nicole Krauss puts it, you want ‘to rephrase the world, to take it in and give it back again differently, so that everything is used and nothing is lost’.

Keep going and keep believing…happy writing!

 

Combining Creativity and Motherhood

We’ve moved on from the time when Cyril Connolly intoned:

“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

Right?

I am blessed with a wonderful husband who willingly shares in raising our son, and generally does a better job of it. (Why men get a special mention for being fathers – called ‘generous, wonderful, thoughtful, kind’ etc. for doing what women do without thinking, and without heaps of praise is one of those things that frustrates me and it may seem I’m perpetrating it here. To be fair, I do feel blessed when it comes to my husband and not just in his role as a father, but as my partner.)

And yet, my husband earns a great deal more in his 9-5 office job than I do with my various creative pursuits and self-employment. My earnings ebb and flow: his are reassuringly consistent and pay our rent. So. After a year of sharing the childcare half/ half – a wonderful time that cemented an incredibly strong bond between father and son – my husband went back to work full time.

Which means I am a full-time mum. I work when my boy is at nursery, and late in the evenings when I’d secretly far rather be in bed, sleeping. And on glorious days like today when my mother-in-law – angel that she is – has her grandson for the day.

So the holidays have at times, in truth, been a bit hard. Wonderful and fun and full of laughter and cuddles and silly games and hopefully memories we will both treasure, but also hard in the sense that sometimes all I want to do is write or create, and I can’t. It’s not really the done thing to admit that parenthood can really stifle creativity at times, but I found huge solace in Lucy Pearce’s incredible life-changing book ‘The Rainbow Way: Cultivating Creativity in the Midst of Motherhood’. I can’t really hoot and toot about this book enough, but suffice to say if you’re a mother desperately needing to connect with your creativity, in whatever form it might take, Lucy Pearce is your woman. She makes you feel normal and she shows you ways in which you can reclaim those windows of time to yourself. She reminds you that it’s vital you do, for your own sanity. It’s a book crammed with practical advice and wisdom from someone who has been there in the thick tangled woods of parenthood, and found a path through that leads to both a creative and mothering heart. Delicious.

It was in this spirit that I asked my mother-in-law for help, and she appeared. I have had a fantastic afternoon wallowing in my own thoughts, writing and drawing. Allowing stories to take form without interruption. Peace and stillness and the chance to read aloud a short story I’m writing (completely unsuitable for children) many times to hear its rhythm.

These times allow me to refill my cup. So that when I pick up our son, I am a better parent and have fulfilled that deep urge to create, and can throw myself into rolling around on the carpet and playing cars with the enthusiasm such a beloved being deserves.

The Bath Short Story Award winners

So, a really cool thing happened today. But I need to rewind a bit first.

This year started really horribly with the loss of two beloveds and a drawn out grieving process. Having become very miserable, it was time to climb back up to some level of joy again, and I made a pact with myself to start living a life that held more meaning than the daily drudge. Which included (amongst other things such as parenting consciously) being more creative, and spending more time writing and drawing – my first loves. It also entailed sending work out into the world. So I launched my illustration business, and I started tidying short stories up. I sent one, Last Rites, to the Bath Short Story Award, not really expecting anything to come of it.

Except that, it was longlisted out of 1003 stories which felt decidedly pleasant and, frankly, enough. And then it was shortlisted – extraordinarily cool! And then, today, I received a call to tell me it had won the Acorn Award for Unpublished Writers (I like the analogy, makes me feel mightiness is on the horizon). (And while Jane, Jude and Anna from the Bath Short Story Award were telling me the wonderful news, my son was screaming blue murder from his car-seat. He was so incredibly loud and furious, I actually had to exit the car and leave him to it for a few minutes so I could just about hear what they were saying. Kids have such a marvellous way of keeping one’s feet on the ground.)

There are some breath-takingly good stories up there by some incredible writers – Safia Moore (First Prize), Dan Powell (Second Prize), Angela Readman (Third Prize), and K M Elkes (Local Prize and Highly Commended). I feel totally bowled over to be in their prestigious company.

And happy that I took a risk this year, and decided to send some words into the world. Pleased that those words came together in the way they did to tickle the fancy of the lovely people at Bath Short Story Award.

Most of all, it’s given me an excuse to keep writing.

Applying one’s derriere

If you’re anything like me, you spend an inordinate amount of time sitting down. Writing is, essentially, more or less entirely conducted with your arse glued to a chair. The only person I know who writes standing up is my husband, who asked his boss if he could have one of those special rising desks that you can use either with a chair or standing up. But, frankly, it looks odd and seems uncomfortable, and the rest of the office looks on bemused. I’m not sure standing desks will catch on. They should, because it’d be better for us in the long run, but I’m fairly certain they won’t.

So, during my working hours which tend to start at 7pm and extend until midnight or 1am,  my bum is welded to my chair. I get up every now and again, and wander to the kitchen to raid the cupboards for food I wouldn’t normally eat – dry Ryvita, bags of seeds, strange things I don’t really want and which get stuck between my keyboard keys and surround my desk so it looks like a bird feeding station in the morning – simply to alleviate the boredom of sitting, sitting, sitting. Staring, staring, staring.

I’ve been trying to implement regular stretching exercises in there, like the kind you get given on planes to stop your legs exploding. This is because I find that increasingly when I get up I am not the elastic twenty-something person I once was, and everything feels stiff and slightly painful, and I walk like my feet are bound for several minutes afterwards.

I was musing on all this derriere application because the common misconception is that writing is such a glamorous job. That it’s book launches, and people swanning over you, and beautiful words flowing on to the page effortlessly, creating a bestseller that you then edit from a hammock on a beach in Bali. Honestly? Couldn’t be further from the truth. Let’s face it, Mary Heaton Vorse had it right when she said:

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair”.

Endlessly. So that your buttocks actually become the shape of the seat. There must be some correlation between the number of words in your magnum opus and the subsequent moulded shape of your behind.