Category Archives: Notebooking

The Things They Hoarded

$_35

One of my late mother-in-law’s favourite possessions!

Going through my late mother-in-law’s closets in recent days gave me much pause for thought about how well I knew her.  Tim O’Brien’s book, ‘The Things They Carried’ famously uses the idea that we carry with us objects that reflect our characters, our history, our hopes and dreams.  How, I wondered, could this be translated into the mountains of old clothes and shoes, the drawers full of old greetings cards and unopened, unused presents, that we were now faced with?

The hoarding behaviour caused by dementia somewhat warps this connection, although I suppose you could say that their choice of hoarded objects still shows the intrinsic nature of the person’s character, as well as the level of their decline:

I shall never forget pulling back the bedclothes one night to find that my mother-in-law had secreted no less than 17 copies of the Oxford Mail under my duvet, reflective not only of her passionate connection with her home town, but also her paranoid and fierce determination to defy her elder sister, with whom she lived, and who insisted she throw the papers away!

Three things in particular made me wonder about who this woman was, and showed me the complexity of her personality:

The Climbers

This first item stopped even her children in their tracks!  It was a shard of stone, slate perhaps, about two feet tall, and welded to an iron base.  Onto it were stuck three little figures.  They had once been those plastic WW2 toy soldiers, the kind that we played with as kids in the 70s.  These were the crawling sniper kind, posed to lie on their bellies, arms above their heads told hold their rifles, one knee crooked to steady the body.  With the gun trimmed away, and their clothing and faces painted brightly, even down to the helmets daubed with bright orange, they had been stuck to the side of the stone at different stages up the rock.  Sewing thread delicately strung between the figures stood in for climbing rope.  It was a DIY representation of men climbing a Welsh cliff face, and I know it was Welsh because the base wore a sticker from a rural art gallery in Mid Wales.

Now, I should point out that neither my mother-in-law, nor her sister, nor anyone else in the family that I know of, ever went on a climbing expedition, nor had any interest in doing so.  I’m not even sure that my mother-in-law ever visited Wales.  I cannot for the life of me work out why she would have owned such a thing, or how she could have acquired it.  Or what she planned to do with it, having done so.  It is clearly old, probably some thirty years or so, so significantly predates the Alzheimers.  Quite apart from the fact that it is truly hideous, despite the ingenuity of its maker, why would you want such a thing?  And what would you do with it?

Billy Bass

If you lived in the UK in the mid 1990s, you will remember Billy Bass because every gift shop sold them.  He consists of a ‘wooden’ plaque, on which is mounted a plastic fish.  When you press the button on the bottom, and if you’ve put the batteries in the right way around, the fish will flap its head and tail, open its mouth, and sing a crackly tune.  Don’t ask me what the song is, I can’t remember – clearly, my mind has blocked it out!  But my mother-in-law loved it.  She would carry it around the house with her, playing it, coming up behind your back and setting it off suddenly to make you jump, bringing it out at every social occasion.  It was the epitome of her completely silly sense of humour, an object that perfectly described her character, and finding it brought back so many memories of happier times.

The Christening Gowns

Buried deep amongst worn out sweaters and cardigans at the bottom of a drawer, my sister-in-law and I came across something deeply poignant, something we never thought we’d find.  A handmade Edwardian christening gown, beautifully decorated with drawn-threadwork and bobbin lace.  With it was a matching undergarment, sleeveless, with the same long, lace-edged skirts.  The gown itself had long bell sleeves edged with the most delicate lace.  Both were made in the finest cotton lawn, carefully washed and pressed.  And with them, a cream silk christening coat (for want of a better word – I have to confess I’ve never seen a garment like it), with a ruffled collar and yoke, frills on the little cuffs, and a deep frill around the bottom hem.  The silk is so soft, and of such a high quality, that it slithers through your fingers like water.

We can only assume that the cotton garments were the ones in which my husband and his brother were christened.  Family heirlooms no doubt.  They certainly look very similar to the one christening photo we’ve managed to find.  But not the silk one.  We don’t know where that comes from.

My mother-in-law never had grandchildren.  I was too ill, and my sister-in-law was the successful headteacher of a string of large secondary schools in London, and had enough kids at work to satisfy any mothering instinct she might have harboured.

Which begs the question…

Were these items bought or kept from the long held and never fulfilled desire for grandchildren?  If she harboured such feelings, my mother-in-law never spoke of them.  She never pressured us.  But I found it deeply sad to find these little whispers of ‘what might have been’ treasured amongst her belongings.

Character

These three items – the one that described her perfectly, the one that showed a deeply buried longing, and the one that seems so disconnected from who she was – say something significant about who my mother-in-law was.  Something the mound of nearly 400 garments we went through could not.  Each demonstrates an aspect of the life she lived and loved, where she lived that life, and the family and friends amongst whom she dwelt.

This seems a significant lesson for a writer, especially for me, as a writer working at the moment on improving depth in my characters. So here is a little exercise for you to have fun with, inspired by my dear mother-in-law:

Writing Exercise:

Choose a character.

Then choose three items they own.

One should be something that perfectly describes an aspect of their personality, an object that perfectly expresses who they are. (Billy Bass)

One should be something which they might hide away, which represents for them a secretly cherished longing. (The christening gowns.)  What is their dream?  Why must they hide it?

And one should be the complete antithesis of everything you know about them.  (The Climbers.)  Why do they own it?  How did it come into their possession?  What did they do with it?

Write about your character through each of these three objects.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Confundus Charm

sussex churchHusband arrived home today after his annual walking holiday on the First World War battlefields with his mates.  And I breathed a sigh of relief.

Not because he managed to come home without stepping on unexploded ordnance, though of course there was that.

Its just that since before Easter, there has been a continual series of appointments on the calendar, friends visiting (which I love, btw, don’t get me wrong), elder care visits to make (emotionally as well as physically exhausting) and illness.  And I’m not very good at times like that.

When the diary fills up, or like this week, is forcibly emptied by the need to lie in bed and groan, I sort of go AWOL on myself.  Do you know what I mean?

Today I read this article by Meghan Genge, and thought:

Yes.  That is where I am too.

I’ve forgotten who I am.  I’ve forgotten me.  I’ve forgotten what I do to be me. The core practices.  The core feelings.

When I’m busy, when I am rushing around from appointment to appointment, or looking after others, its not just the little things that get forgotten, like shaving my legs and flossing my teeth – no time, no time!

I forget where I put my soul.

So now His Lordship is home, I have a small window of a few weeks between elder care visits to remember.  I’ve finished the hurdling for a while.  As I’m recovering from a nasty virus which has knocked me flat for the last week, I plan to take things gently.  But I’m going to pick up my journal first, because whenever I need a compass to find myself and my creativity, thats what I find in my hand.  Pen and paper.  And it never fails.

Happy Creating,

EF

Digging Up Jewels

diamondIts all a bit pre-Christmas mental here, and its possible you are feeling the same way, so lets share a little time avoiding writing those cards, shall we?

Lately I’ve been collecting words.

I came across this word in a novel I was reading, and fell in love:

craquelure

Isn’t that just a marvellous way to describe an old man’s face?

Then I started noticing other words when they popped up:

nurture

topaz

Words I hadn’t really thought about in years, though I knew the meanings.

plangent

planish

Words that are nice to roll around on your tongue.  Words that pop like red roses in your paragraphs.

scrum

rhomboid

As you voyage through the festive season, why not make a list of the interesting words you come across.  Its not a hard or time-consuming thing to do – I scribble mine on the scrappy little pad of paper I keep by my bed for the purposes of writing to do lists and things I have to remember in the morning.

maroon

fecund

Then I transfer them to the back page of my writing notebook when I have a moment to spare.  Easily done.

flaunt

flaxen

I’ve got a bit of a passion for F words at the moment, as you can see!

They don’t have to be on a theme or for a reason.  I collect them only because they appeal to me.  They sing out from the page.

Now I’ve got a growing resource for making my writing interesting and alluring – I’ve written a little about this before, and I’m coming back to it.  I’m thinking about creating a kind of utilitarian type prose, a la Hemingway, but studded with jewels of unusual and seductive words.

So, why not see what little jewels you can dig up?

Happy Creating,

EF

Deep Breath

The view from my bedroom window.

The view from my bedroom window.

Samhain is past, and we are well into the Mourning Moon, a time of releasing the old, and accepting our own power. Here in rural South Norfolk, we’ve had soggy and unseasonably mild weather, which has lately meant long days of grey skies and continual downpours. The last of the trees to shed their leaves, the oaks, have begun their brown weeping. The landscape is smudged khaki and brown and yellow, the edges blurred by autumn mists.
A fortnight has passed since my last post, a space during which I have been trying to recover a little of my strength, and some of my thinking capacity. The first week was one of complete surrender. After it, I felt more rested than I had in a whole year, I think.
The second was more tense, punctuated by a day-long dash to Oxford and back, to take the elders to the doctors for important assessment and treatment. Seven hours in a car, split in half by four hours of pushing a wheelchair and repeating myself every ten minutes, was enough to exhaust almost all the good will my body and I had built up between us. Since then I have been lost in a hormonal, anxiety-ridden mist, feeling OUGHTS and SHOULDS mounting up like an impending avalanche over my head. Add to that the impending doom of the Christmas season, and life-changing news from several friends, and I’m not sure I’ve come out of this much recharged.
Let’s just say, this has been a time of reassessment and reflection.
While I have come a long way in my year of ‘DARE’, I’m not sure that I can face another action word year. After ‘REVOLUTIONARY’ (2013) and ‘DARE’ (2014), I’ve attracted way too much change into my life for comfort, and I think I need a rest, thank you, Mrs Universe. I’ve decided that next year, I need a gentler world to ease my way. ‘BALANCE’ or ‘NURTURE’, perhaps. Or even just ‘EASE’. A reminder to be kinder with myself, something that, like most women, I find difficult to allow myself to do.
Tectonic shifts are happening in my creative life too. The relief I felt at giving myself a rest from blogging caused a delicious upsurge in other creative outlets. I immediately went off and made the back door curtain I’d been meaning to sew for the last six years. I’ve been hand-quilting a Christmas stocking for my guide-daughter too, which is enormously satisfying. I hope I manage to get it finished in time. Being able to sew again feels fantastic, although I had a few scary moments trying to remember how to thread my sewing machine!
I’ve decided I need to be using my journaling practise in a much more systematic way, too. I want to try a lot more guided journaling, by which I mean journaling from prompts rather than the simple stream-of-consciousness method I have always used. I’m feeling the need for more deep self-exploration, and I want to use my creativity as an integral part of the work I do with my Gestalt counsellor on a weekly basis to effect this.
I haven’t stopped writing, in the meantime, even though I haven’t been blogging. I’ve got two big fanfics on the go at the moment, great sprawling things that seem to be growing every time I look at them. My head is full of scenes stored up to be written out. That’s not a brilliant way of writing, especially when my head is so blurry. The other day, I sat down to write a scene, only to realise that of the two emotional points I wanted the characters to thrash out, I could only remember one.
A bit not good.
The result was some serious re-evaluation of my notebooking habits, which I still haven’t resolved, but hope to share with you soon.
As well as putting some conscious intention into my reading habits, I’ve been contemplating a new original writing project too. In the wake of the In/Famous Engagement, and the storm that followed it, I came to the conclusion that I needed to get away from fanfiction. And yes, I know I’ve been saying this for ages, but sometimes it takes a big event to push us to make real changes. So much is shifting in my life right now, and I want to move on to something fresh. I don’t think I’m going to be able to give up writing fanfics, nor do I honestly want to, but there is an idea knocking at my door, scratching at the wood like the ghost of Cathy in ‘Wuthering Heights’, and it won’t go away. As I used to say to my school friends:

‘I think I’ve got a story coming on’.

And finally, I’ve got some ideas for non-fiction that I want to have a go at. I think the phrase is ‘watch this space’.
Thank you, dear readers, for sticking with me through this break, and throughout this bumpy year. While I know it is only going to get bumpier for a while, I’m grateful that you are with me, listening to my ramblings. It is good to know I’m not shouting into the unresponsive darkness.
Happy creating,
EF

Be Open. Don’t Try So Hard.

On Ardnave Beach, Islay, which I am yearning for dreadfully at the moment.

On Ardnave Beach, Islay, which I am yearning for dreadfully at the moment.

Lately, I keep coming back to the same thought:

Be present.  Turn Up.  Be still and open.  Don’t try so hard.

I was watching Jamie Ridler’s morning vlog, in which she talked about how people strive so hard to find their Life Purpose.  We make such a BIG DEAL out of it.

What if we just let it happen?

I’m not saying you can just expect your art to pop up out of nowhere.  You have to be present, make yourself ready.

You do your core practises.  Your morning pages.  Your writing exercises. Your artist dates.  Your scales or your practise sketches.  Your barre exercises.  You make sure that you are ready when the inspiration comes.

When I used to read about writers who sat down at their desks in the morning and stayed there for an alotted number of hours, regardless of whether the work came or not, I used to think they were mad.  It seems like working too hard. It seems like self-punishment.

Maybe you don’t just have to sit at your desk.

Maybe you can cultivate a mindset of being open.  Where ever you are, and whatever you are doing.

Maybe we are all trying too hard.

Forcing it just doesn’t work.  Every writer who has ever been blocked knows that.  But if you keep up the practises, the ideas come.  They come because your mind is constantly in a place where it is curious and open, and like a lamp in the darkness, it attracts the fluttering moths of inspiration.

So keep her steady as she goes.  Turn up for your daily creative habits.  Relax into them, and don’t panic.

The work will come.

Happy Creating,

EF

Journal Friday: Returning to the Journal

VW desktop

This time of year (autumn) is always a time of new starts for me. Husband is a University lecturer, which establishes a certain kind of seasonality in our house – we live according to the academic year, just as we have since we were kids. And on top of the usual stationery-buying frenzy I get at this time of year, I find myself stopping to reassess where I am too.

In truth, its always good to stop off on the seasonal journey to think about where you are in your life, and where you want to go. Life coaches encourage us to do this on a quarterly basis, and to be quite frank, I think it’s a good wheeze. It is hard enough to find time in a busy life to stop and think, but like the prayer bell in the monastery that reminds the inmates to focus on God at regular intervals, the seasons are an automatic prompt to stop and take stock.

This year has been a time of huge shifts for me, changes in my role as wife, care-taker, aunt, friend and woman. I have felt new currents in my creative life starting up, the drive to take my photography more seriously, the sense of a new mission, a new message in my work. It is a time of change, of departures.

Pagan theology tells us that autumn is the time to reap the harvest of what we have sown during the productive seasons of the year – not only of Spring and Summer, the active months, but also of the deep, dark percolation of the Winter that preceded them, before we go down into the dark once more, into that time of thinking, rest and meditation. We need to think about what we have achieved, assess the fruits of our labours, celebrate them, and prepare to settle into a time of productive hibernation during which we can incubate our hopes and dreams for the future.

Well, hooray for the journal, then!

I have been taking time to settle back into my journal-keeping, and to use it in a more constructed way. I have never really used the technique of guided journaling before, by which I mean writing from prompts designed to explore the psyche.   I’ve always been more of a ‘stream of consciousness problem solver’ kind of diarist. In the midst of upheaval, especially during the summer months, I find it hard, therefore, to keep up such a regular journal commitment, because it often takes time to write and write until you’ve found the answer.

Recently, though, I have decided to be more conscious about what I am doing with my diary. I have set out to explore myself and different aspects of my life in a structured way, in the hope that it will guide me to new paths, and help anchor me through the current storms. I’m using visual means too. Nothing fancy. (I’m still pretty blocked about my drawing.) I’ve been collaging instead. Gala Darling’s ‘Radical Self-Love Bible’ Programme has been invaluable with this, a plethora of prompts and eye-candy to help you explore yourself on paper, through collage and writing. I’m not much good at discipline, of course, and though I am half way through the programme now, my ‘bible’ is pretty lightweight. I tend to fall back on my familiar old notebook on a day to day basis, but Gala’s approach is challenging me just enough to make me think about where I am going with my diary, and that’s enough right now.

Journal Exercise:

This weekend, I am planning to retreat to my journaling practise and do some conscious assessment. I’m going to take time to recognise the enormous changes I have gone through, and the achievements I have made so far this year. I am going to consider my intentions for the coming dark months, and work on an emotional strategy for handling Christmas, which is always a difficult time for me. I mean to use my journal to ground myself in who I am, and who I want to be. And to think about where I am going.

If it proves a productive, positive exercise, I ‘m going to repeat it on a seasonal basis.

Would you like to join me?

Why not take this weekend, or some time during it, to sit down in a quiet place with your journal, and think about where you are in your life, and where you want to go.

  • What have you achieved in the last nine months?
  • What ‘babies’ have you birthed, literal, creative, emotional or otherwise?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • How are you feeling right now, physically and emotionally?
  • How would you like to feel?
  • What small, achievable steps can you take to move towards these intentions?
  • What flashpoints can you identify in the coming three or four months? Can you explore why they affect you? What could you do to ease your path through them?
  • How can you celebrate yourself at this point in your life?
  • What creative voices are calling you right now?

If you find the idea of a more conscious journaling practise interesting, you might like to explore Tristine Rainer’s seminal book, The New Diary.

If you want more guidance about deciding where you want to go in life, take a look at Danielle LaPorte’s The Firestarter Sessions, and The Desire Map.

Kate Courageous’s wonderful website is full of rich wisdom and worth exploring.

Happy Journaling,

EF

 

Losing myself amongst the ‘Woolves’

Virginia Woolf as a young woman.  I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

Virginia Woolf as a young woman. I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

So I spent Monday in London, escorted by my wonderful fangrrrl niece Amelia, at the ‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  And it was wonderful.

We saw innumerable portraits and photographs, but I think the personal papers were the most moving.  There were pages from her diary describing the bombing of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Tavistock Square home in October 1940, the original manuscript of ‘A Room of One’s Own’, love letters from Leonard written before their marriage,  and most moving of all, the little note she left for him when she set out to drown herself in the River Ouse in 1941.

One of the things that particularly struck me was that Woolf bound all her own notebooks and manuscripts, having taken bookbinding lessons in her teenage years as some kind of therapy for her mental illness.  The result was that she could make the perfect notebook for her own needs – which is, for a stationery addict like me, absolute nirvana.  Her books are big, too, slightly larger than A4, leaving plenty of space for her to explore her ideas.

Another interesting detail for me was that the page from her diary about the bombing had no crossings out on it at all.  My diary is a veritable Somme of scribblings-out, but she wrote a stream of consciousness with a self-assurance that seems absolute.  She had no doubts about what she was trying to convey.

The original copies of her books, published by the Hogarth Press, which she ran with her husband, still with their book jackets designed by her sister Vanessa Bell, look crisp and radical even now.  Amelia (a bookseller) and I both commented on the fact that the many editions of the novels for sale in the gallery shop had an assortment of different covers, none of which were so attractive, expressive, and frankly Modern-looking, as the originals.

Woolf is my writing hero for so many reasons.  She battled mental and physical illness, misogyny, and childhood sexual abuse to become one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, reinventing the novel form in a way that would be emulated and built upon in succeeding decades.  She was self-educated, too, and could read Greek and Latin, despite the fact that her parents refused to send her to school as they did her brothers, a fact she railed against.

She is often criticised for being classist and racist, but I would argue that she was a product of her time, and it is to her credit that she did so much to counteract the snobbery and distrust of the working classes, which she inherited from her social millieu, through her political work.

Virginia Woolf was a great writer and feminist, a patron of the visual and applied arts, and a creative giant,  as well as a truly great human being who overcame enormous adversity to achieve what she did.  If you cannot get on with her novels, I wouldn’t judge you, but I urge you to dip into her enlightening and often witty diaries for inspiration on how to live a creative life despite so many difficulties.

Happy Creating,

EF