Category Archives: Healing

The Friday Review No 8: Exploring the Shadows

toddler sulk

I don’t want to write today.

I feel angry, resentful, depressed, bitter.  I want to sit with my back to the world like a toddler, arms crossed, refusing to cooperate.

But I’m not a toddler, I’m an adult, and I can’t bury my head in the sand.

Neither can I stop being me.

So I sit down at the desk, because that’s where I feel safest, and I pour the toddler’s complaints onto the page.  Whining, sulking, complaining. Resentful, spiteful, selfish.  I let the toddler have her say.

And when I sit back and look at what I’ve done, I find I have page after page of scribble, malformed letters sliding together in a hurry to get away from their meaning.  Angry, it says.  Voiceless, it says.  Unheard, it says.  But today I have listened.

I’m a great believer in writing as healing. 

To me it is a refuge, even when I don’t want a refuge, even when I don’t want healing.  When I want to wallow.  It allows me to wallow, and then move on.  Sometimes we all need to hold a pity party for ourselves.

In the last month, I’ve had something of a ‘slap upside the head with the Frying Pan of Enlightenment’, as they say.  It’s been about acceptance.  Accepting my shadows.  The things I don’t like about myself.  The things I hide, even from myself.  The anger, spite, pride, pettiness.  All the things that were dirty words in the house where I grew up, the worse qualities you could display – lazy, selfish, greedy.  As a child, I would have done anything to avoid being labelled with those words.  As an adult, I’m pathologically terrified that people might think those things of me.

But honestly, we’re all lazy, selfish, greedy, sometimes.  It is part of being human.  It doesn’t stop us from being transcendently kind, loving, self-sacrificing, compassionate, gentle, patient, all of which we can also be.  Sometimes.

Accepting that human beings can all display every human characteristic, good and bad, is one thing a writer needs to be able to do in order to paint vivid characters.

Accepting that, as individuals, we can all be those things is something we all need to do.

And as a writer, I can use my experiences of feeling those things, of wanting those emotions, those behaviours, of indulging them, as insights into my characters.  I can use them as rocket fuel for my writing.

But only if I can accept that I have them.

(It’s a bloody hard job, this self-knowledge stuff, but I’m having a go.)

So here I am, sitting in the shadows, gnashing my toddler teeth, sulking fit to burst, and at the same time, observing myself, knowing that all this is going to make a great scene in my novel.

And you know what?  I feel so much better now.  I might even crawl off my naughty step and go and find myself something nice to eat as a reward for exploring my shadows.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Friday Review No. 4: Remembering Stillness and Forgetting Perfectionism

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Painting by Martin Battye FRSA, and my own inept reflection!

This week has been about catching my tail.

You know those moments where you come out of a period of frantic activity and realise that the house is a tip, and so is your head?  Suddenly you find yourself coming in to land in what you think is home, but which turns out to feel like a strangely alien place.

So I’ve been sitting still.  Listening to the birds outside the window.  Doing self-care things, like going to therapy appointments, meditating, remembering how to do the down dog asana (though in my, case, very badly), journaling, and indulging my muse.

I took myself off on an artist date.  Not to a gallery or the movies.  I went for an hour-long wallow at the library.  I love our library.  Its huge.  I always feel like I’m in a sweetie shop with an unlimited budget.  Sometimes I go in there, and I can’t see anything I want to bring home.  Other times, such as this one, there are so many books I want to take home and cuddle that I just can’t decide.  Well, you can only read so many words in the three week loan period, and I figure the ones I like will pop up again soon enough.  I came home with six, including two art books which I hope will help me to get drawing again.

The choice of art books was partly prompted by a dear friend, Martin Battye, painter and raconteur, Fellow of the Royal Academy and my husband’s cricket club.  He lent me a few of his old sketch books a while ago, as I wanted to write a blog post about his creative process, thinking his images might inspire you, dear reader, as much as they do me.  Then Life happened, and the sketchbooks stayed patiently waiting on my desk in a plastic carrier bag for the time when Life would get out of the way, and I would remember I had a blog!  This week, Martin needed his sketch books back, and I felt awful, of course, for neglecting my promise to him, and his kindness in lending me his treasure trove.  I looked through the pages and was once more dazzled by the obvious fact his work illustrates:

It’s a sketch book.  That means it is a work place.  A place to try things out.  You don’t have to get it perfect every time.  Or, as artist and illustrator Cliff Wright puts it so brilliantly:

‘Drawing is a great medium for experimentation because nothing is set in stone – you can always do another drawing if you don’t like the first one.’

Cliff Wright, The Magic of Drawing: Bring your Vision to Life on the Page, David & Charles Ltd 2008

This has been a revelation to me, a victim of perfectionism all my life.  Even as a kid, I struggled with the idea that I could make a mess and get it wrong and practice till I was happy with the end result.  Somewhere along the line, the idea of playing, and of practicing something to get the hang of it, got lost.  It had to be perfect first time.  Which is, I suppose, why I eventually stopped making art altogether.

Martin’s sketchbooks, the sketchbooks of a man I think of as a ‘proper’ artist, show that making rough sketches, making a mess, scrabbling about to find the right line, are what sketchbooks are all about.  Which makes it alright for me to do the same, somehow.

I’m grateful to Martin for his support and generosity in sharing his work with me, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of the precious images from his sketchbooks with you soon.  In the meantime I’m taking this crucial revelation about perfectionism into the coming days, hoping it will sink in permanently this time, and allow me to try stuff out, experiment, get it wrong.  Because that is how you learn.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Friday Review No. 3: Processing

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It’s the last day of March, and I’m home after a fortnight of running around like a headless chicken, attending to family duties.  Its been one long, continuous To Do list.

Honestly, I’m knackered.  Even if I didn’t have ME/CFS, I’d be wrecked.

The problem is that there has been so much mental processing, so many emotions, that my mind feels full of fog.  I can’t think straight.  In fact, I can’t think at all.  I feel like I need to be still, wrapped in silence, on my own for at least a week, to get my head around what just happened.

Sometimes, life takes over, and then drops you like a stone, and it takes a while to get back into the groove of who you are and where you want to go.  I have come home to my life of writing and blogging and drawing and being me, and I feel like I have lost the connection with that life.  I feel like an alien to myself.  But all I need is time.

Often in the creative life, we try to force things.  Something monumental happens, the illness or death of a loved one, a new baby, our own ill health, moving house or job, anything that makes for a big upheaval.  And we try to pretend it hasn’t happened, that we can just carry on.

Sometimes, we can.  Sometimes keeping writing or drawing or making music is the thing that anchors us through the storm.

There are also times when we need to sit down and just be.  Times when it is important to assimilate what has just happened.  Times to lay down the pen or the plectrum and give ourselves time.  Time to let this new reality sink in.  And caring for your creativity, and yourself, depends on the skill of knowing which to do.  Today, my gut is telling me to rest and process.  And I am listening.

So I’m giving myself time, and not forcing it.

I had my session with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, yesterday, and it was great.  So much to think about.  I’ve kept up my writing practice sessions, twice a week, just as I promised myself, and Heidi, and you, dear reader, throughout my travels, which I’m very proud of.  And that felt good.  And I’ve been reading – I finished ‘The Name of the Rose’ while I was away, and thought a bit about that.  So progress has been made.  Nevertheless, I know I need to wait till my brain comes back to normal service before I launch into more writing.

I have learnt one important thing this fortnight, though.  It is one I always have to keep re-learning.  (Duh.)  And it is this:

I need to write in my journal.  Every day.  Otherwise I don’t know who I am.

I sat down with my journal last night for the first time in two weeks, and wrote, and somewhere amongst the pages and the scribbled blue shapes of the letters, I found myself again.  Over and over, I neglect to write through difficult times, and then when I come back to it, I realise how much it would have helped me to cope, if only I’d made a priority of it, if only I’d made time.  That can be hard to do when you are at the beck and call of another, especially if its a family member who is sick and needs you, and as a result does not recognise any boundaries and expects you to be on call 24 hours a day.  Its very hard, especially if you are a woman, to set aside half an hour come what may, to be alone with your diary every day.  But if that is the only way to keep your sanity, then it must be done.

And that has been this week’s important lesson for me, I think.  That journaling is the key to my creative practice.  And my sanity.  And probably my identity too.  And it must be sacrosanct.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, must get in the way of my journaling time.  And that includes me!

With that, dear readers, I will leave you, and go and have a soak in the bath with my paralysed, fog-filled brain, and hope it comes back to life soon.

In the meantime, happy creating,

EF

 

 

Reading Reboot Part 1

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Shelfie!

As part of my creative recovery journey, I’ve been trying to get back into reading.  Stephen King says firmly that:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

(Stephen King, On Writing)

What the Great Man says has to be right, yeah?  So, if I want to write again, I need to resume reading.

I have to confess that in recent years, while I’ve been in dementia-survival mode, I’ve been reading for the purposes of distraction or survival.  Which means I’ve either been reading comforting, funny novels, most of which I’ve read before i.e. Terry Pratchett, or self-help. Or an awful lot (and I mean an awful lot) of fanfiction!  Now, as I emerge from the dark shadow, I need to remember what the hell a novel actually looks and feels like.

In working this out, I thought it might be useful to consider my history as a reader.  I have to admit that since I learnt to read as a child, I have been a complete addict.  I was the kid that had read the back of the cornflakes packet so often, I knew it by heart.  I devoured books.  I spent so much time lying on my bed reading that the neighbours believed my mother locked me in my room rather than allowed me out to play!  But I didn’t want to go out to play. I wanted to read Monica Dickens, and Enid Blyton’s ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clares’ books. I adored Tove Jansson.

My parents encouraged me.  My mother was a voracious reader who introduced me to Jane Austen and the Brontes.  My father read to me most nights when he got home from work, and if he was travelling for his job, which he did often, he recorded episodes on an old cassette tape player for me to listen to every night – oh, how I wish I still had those episodes of him reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and doing all the voices!

So it was not surprising that I wanted to do an English degree for the sheer pleasure of spending three years reading.  There I discovered Virginia Woolf and Hemingway.

In my twenties, as I recovered from the rigours of academic analysis of texts, I was introduced to Terry Pratchett, whose common sense wisdom and humour left me in a kind of ecstatic daze.  I read Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, Garrison Keillor and Laurence Durrell.  And then I discovered Alice Hoffman’s early works, and was dazzled.  This was what writing should be, I thought.

In my thirties, powered by the reading list I received as part of my Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, I ventured into new territories.  Margaret Atwood, Helen Dunmore, Pat Barker, Iain Banks, Tracy Chevalier, and Michael Cunningham all delighted me.

But eventually, my illness caught up with me.  ME/CFS has created neurological symptoms for me that have caused me trouble with my language skills.  For a long time, I struggled to read at all.  Words jumped all over the pages.  I couldn’t remember what the start of a sentence was when I got to the end of it.  I would stare at the words for hours, recognising the shapes, knowing I ought to know what they meant, but unable to grope for the meanings.  The occupation that had once been a joy to me became misery.  No longer able to concentrate, my fiction reading fell away.  I fought on, but tended to concentrate on history, and more self-help books, because I could read them in short bursts.  Later, I began a slow recovery, and I read fanfiction because it was easy.

Clearing my late mother-in-law’s home since her death in September has reminded me of how much joy we shared in our reading.  She too was fascinated by books, and we often swapped volumes.  I remember going with her to see P.D. James, Colin Dexter and Alan Bennett speak.  Alzheimers sadly robbed her of the ability to read early on, but she was still passionate about buying books right up until her death, even though she didn’t know what to do with them anymore.  In sorting through her belongings, we have been faced with a gargantuan mountain of much loved volumes she treasured, a monument to a life spent reading for the sheer joy of it.

It was one of her final gifts to me that boxes of dusty Agatha Christie, Ngiao Marsh and Margery Allingham volumes reminded me that reading was something I also loved.  I will forever be grateful that she has given me back the delight in novels that I had forgotten.  I plucked a couple of C.J Sansom books out of her stash and waded in.

And it was wonderful.

So I set the intention to resume reading fiction.

Voraciously.

Does any of this feel familiar to you?  Could you tell your own story of a reading life somewhat derailed by life?  Do you remember a time when you consumed books like other people get through teabags, when nothing made you happier than to get to the end of a doorstop-sized novel, having lived it every step of the way?  Are those days long gone for you now?

In the next post, I will tell you how I managed to reinstate good reading habits, so that you can do it too if, like me.

Happy Creating – and Reading!

Love EF

 

The Friday Review No. 1

go away bag

Dear Reader,

As promised in my last post, my intention is to update you on my progress in resuscitating my creativity on a weekly basis, and Friday seems as good a time as any.  So here we go.

Friday Review No 1:

Well, the week got off to an excellent start with the aforementioned post and recovery plan, followed by a day of frenzied ideas for blog posts.  I’ve sketched out 12 in total so far, so you’ve got lots of exciting content to look forward to.

And then the wheels fell off the waggon.

I received news of a not-unexpected but nevertheless devastating medical diagnosis for someone close to me.  It was hard to cope with all the emotions that came up as a result.

Instead of forcing myself to take action, I simply sat with those emotions, and felt them.  And slowly, slowly, the pain began to lift.  I know this is only the beginning of a diffcult and life-changing process, but I also know that my creative practice is not only going to help me get through this new phase, it is also going to feed into my future work.

I was worried my plan for creative recovery would be completely derailed before it had even properly started, but thankfully, that hasn’t happened.  I have kept my appointments with myself this week to do my writing practice, thoroughly enjoyed then, and even (imho) done some good work.  I have discovered some new blogs about writing, which I hope to share with you in future posts.  I have continued with my reading adventure, though Umberto Eco’s habit of dropping into Latin in ‘The Name of the Rose’ has proved something of a labour to me, since I don’t understand Latin.  But I am keeping on keeping on.  And thats the point.

This is what I learned:

How to journal when you need to get stuff out, but you just can’t face explaining.

Let me introduce you to your friend in extremis, the list.

Yes, dear reader, the facts are too horrible to cope with, but you know getting them on paper will a) get some of the poison outside your body, and b) begin the process of helping you to see not only some context, but also how to navigate your way through the battlefield with your sanity (or at least most of it) intact. This is the moment when you each for your pen and make a list.

Write down a list of what happened:

This happened.

and then this.

(I used bullet points.)  And what you remember:

I remember the paper on the desk when he told me.

The phone showed the duration of the call so far.

The consultant will do x,y,z.

I said.

He said.

She said.

Then I did this.  And this.

Then this person rang.

Just getting the facts down on the paper relieves you from having to remember them, or to explain them in future to your diary.  You don’t need to give any detail.  Just bald facts. You don’t need to write them out at length.  Just make notes.  And then let them go.

Now is not the time to analyse.  Just be with the feelings.  You can go back to your usual journal practice of writing at length when you are ready.  But only when you are ready.

The important thing is not to neglect your journal during the crisis.  If you do, you will begin to feel that the mass of painful information you have to record is building up into a barrier that will stop you from using your writing to coach yourself through in the future.  Even if you just sketch down a couple of bullet points every day until you are ready to write more, you are keeping that mountain cut down to size.

This is what I have done this week, a completely new approach to life crises for me – before, when things have happened, I have written nothing, and then felt unequal to the task of resuming when so much has changed.  I’m so glad my creative muse rescued me this time with the idea of the list.  It eased the pain immeasurably, made me feel so much less overwhelmed by events.  I offer this technique to you, in the hope that it may help you in any challenges you may meet.

With love,

EF.

 

 

Witness my Journey

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A New Adventure

This is my plan to begin again.

Two years of creative drought are over, and though there are still challenges in my personal life which could prove equally difficult, I have decided I can’t allow myself to be so completely crushed next time around.

So I’m on a journey.

One step at a time, baby steps. Reminding myself.  Beginning again.

Its actually quite hard when you have been effectively out of the creative loop for so long, and there is no expecting to pick up exactly where you left off.  My typing fingers are rusty, my imagnation has stalled, my physical strength is unreliable, and I am far too likely to lapse into ranting at the mirror in the bathroom in the mornings, and then being in such a bad mood that I fail to find any corner for creativity the rest of the day.

Its time to inch into new habits, little actions that mount up, tiny movements that ease me into a new frame of mind.

I’m on a journey, and I’d like to invite you along with me.

I don’t know how its going to turn out, and if I’m going to get anywhere, or if I’ll end up back at square one, but I hope that you and I can both learn from the experience.  So I’d like to set out for you the little steps I am taking to ease myself back into writing again.

Firstly, I’ve made a vow to read more.  Yeah, I know, this from the woman who can’t walk past a bookskshop or a library.  This from a woman who has permanent damage to her shoulder from lugging around a handbag full of books, just in case she finds herself in a queue without some way to entertain herself.

I did a bit of analysis after Christmas, and realised that the majority of books I read last year were non-fiction.  That, or Terry Pratchett books I’d read before that I knew would comfort and distract me through admitedly difficult times.  I remembered the days when I was taking my Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, days when I consumed really good writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Helen Dunmore and others.  I realised I couldn’t remember when I’d last read a new work of fiction.

So my new New Year’s intention was to read.  Widely.  Novels, yes.  A bit of History and, obviously, non-fiction.  To remind myself what good writing is.  And so far I am doing quite well, helped by the fact that we’ve been clearing out my late mother-in-law’s sustantial book stash, from which I have benefitted greatly.  I had quite a haul of books for Christmas too, which I’m looking forward to devouring.  The important thing to note is that I am excited about the idea of reading fiction again, which I haven’t been for a long time.  Which is a good sign.

Secondly, I’m pursuing a writing practice.

I read Natalie Goldberg’s wonderful book, ‘The True Secret of Writing’ at the end of last year and I was blown away by it.  I started doing timed writing practices in the manner she suggests.  Pen to paper. Write whatever comes.  Its heaven.

Thirdly, coaching.  Yes, you heard me right.  My dear friend, the poet, Heidi Williamson, is also a writing coach, and kindly agreed to take me on as a client.  Our first session was mind-expanding.  I’ll write more about this experience in future, but let me tell you, I’m sold.

I’d been wrestling with getting out of my own way to do writing practice, and Heidi suggested I make a deal with myself to do two sessions a week, on the days best suited to my schedule, which for me is Monday and Thursday.  So far, I have yet to default.  Which is unheard-of for me. I do it on other days too, which feels like earning huge brownie points.  Its only a little thing, twenty minutes at most, but it feels like a monumental change.  And I’m keeping a promise to myself, which is adding to my confidence.

Fourthly, not pushing.  This might seem counter-intuitive, but Goldberg suggests that you need to do writing practice for at least a year before you have even begun to accumulate enough material to track what it is you would like to write about in a sustained way, such as a novel.  So I don’t really have a particular project.  I’m just writing.  I’m being gentle with myself, because goals tend to freak me out and stop me writing.  There is plenty of time for them later on, when I’m ready anyway.

The whole point of not pushing is to enjoy myself.  I’m not going to write if it isn’t fun.  So why make it hard.  I want to enjoy it.

No doubt I will add to this routine in future, but this is my core plan to gentle myself back into creating.  I read somewhere recently that ‘Creativity is the expression of the Soul.’  My soul has taken quite a battering in the last two years, so I need to nurse it gently back to health with love and sploshy paints, and definitely no strict rules.

Finally, I mean to document my journey here on this blog, which has been sadly neglected of late. I want to tell you how I get on.  A bit of accountability, yes, but also a project to get me blogging again.

So I hope you will join me on my trip to Creativity,

with love,

EF

Pivot Points

Let me tell you about the Marie Antoinette watch.

Its said to be the greatest watch ever made.

One day in 1783, an admirer of the French queen arrived at the workshop of Adam-Louis Breguet, the greatest watchmaker in Paris.  He wanted the perfect watch for the perfect woman.  His commission was to be without bounds.  Breguet was to pour everything he knew into making the most complex, and most beautiful timepiece possible.  Money was no object.

The watch became Breguet’s obsession.  Even after the French monarchy fell, Marie Antoinette was executed, and the lucrative business he had built from the commissions of the aristrocracy was in ruins, Breguet continued to craft his masterpiece.  Ultimately, it took forty years to complete, and had to be finished by Breguet’s son, four years after the master himself died.

Known officially as the Breguet No. 160 Grand Complication, the watch contained every function known at that time – Breguet even invented a few new ones.  It was crafted in precious metals and gems.  Breguet used sapphire for all the mechanical pivot points in the clockwork, in order reduce friction.

And its these sapphire pivot points that fascinate me.

Because I’m at a pivot point right now.

You will have noticed in recent months that this blog has become fairly, if not completely, dormant.  Life has, as it were, taken over.  There was no space to write.  No space in my life.  No space in my head.

Then, in September, on my birthday ironically, my mother-in-law died.  Her dementia had been filling up all the space in my brain and in my life.  Since she has been gone, I’ve begun to recollect not only who I am, but also all the activities that had been shelved and forgotten in order to look after her.  So many things I wanted in my life had fallen away, out of necessity.  And so many things now seemed irrelevant.

In the last few months, I know that I have changed not only profoundly but also irrevocably.  So much more has been happening than simply looking after my ailing elderly relative – things which are someone else’s story to tell.  And yet they, too, have had a hand in my transformation.  My life has been like a pack of cards, being shuffled by the Hand of (insert your favourite deity/scientific motivator here).

The day my mother-in-law died was a beautiful day.  The sun shone.  The sky was a perfect sapphire blue.  I stood outside the hospital foyer with a soft, warm wind on my face, and knew that I had reached one of Breguet’s pivots.  Wasn’t the sky exactly the right blue, after all?  And does not sapphire reduce friction?

The friction of life with Alzheimers is gone.  The cards that were thrown up into the air have fallen back down in a new order.  The things that seemed important then are irrelevant now, and vice versa.

Now the funeral is over, now the first shock of grief has passed, I find all I want to do is write.  I want to write something profound.  I want to write because I have changed.  I want to write something real.  Something hard.  Something pivotal.  My own sapphire pivot point.  So I am writing.  By hand in my journal.  In notebooks, longhand.  Using Natalie Goldberg’s wisdom as my map, I am steadily shuffling my way towards the light.

I hope I am making my own ‘Grand Complication’, out of the precious metals and gems of my own life.  I hope you will join me on my journey.  And I hope it won’t take me the forty years it took Breguet!

Happy Creating,

EF