Category Archives: On Process

An Essay on Prammage*, or How Not to Take Your Own Advice About Adverse Criticism

*Prammage: noun, colloquial.  The act of throwing one’s toys out of the pram;  going off in a flounce or a sulk; a passive-aggressive act of self-harm or self-sabotage in response to not getting one’s own way; see also ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’.

I was going to write you a lovely blog post about playing with language today, but events have taken an interesting turn, and I wanted to share them with you.

On Monday 17th November I posted a Lewis fanfic called ‘Not So Innocent’ that I’d had hanging around on my hard disk for a while.  It was written as a quickfic, and I found it again, and thought it was funny, so I decided to post it as a quickie and didn’t think much about it.  Being a Lewis fic, it didn’t get masses of attention, because the fandom is relatively small, but the person I posted it for as a gift liked it, and that seemed all that mattered.

This morning, Wednesday 19th November, I woke up to vicious criticism on both FF.net and AO3 for the story.  The reviewer basically accused me of condoning and inciting sexual harrassment and rape.

Hmm.

This didn’t go down too well with me, since I have been victim of both sexual harrassment and abuse.

I am also not in a good place at the moment, and my response to this unexpected attack was to delete the story on both AO3 and FF.net.  I have never written a dub-con or non-con story and I wouldn’t.  It disgusts me.  I have written quite aggressively dark stories that include child abuse and public humiliation sex, but which explore the psychological wounds that underly and result from them.  For anyone to accuse me of condoning sexually abusive behaviour was just too much.

I can’t be arsed.  I’ve got too much other shit going on in my life to bother with making myself a target for such oversensitive extreme-feminist bull.

As far as I was concerned, the reader had simply not identified the subtext which runs through the story, which is that all participants know exactly what is going on, and are party to it, an irony from which the humour is supposed to arise.

Obviously I didn’t make that subtext clear enough, I realised, as I stomped off to the bathroom to shower.  (I do most of my thinking and story planning in the shower.)  And then I really got to thinking:

Was my own experience of sexual harrassment at work being a ‘normal’ part of a woman’s career colouring my work?

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I have been on the receiving end of some serious acts of sexual harrassment in my younger days (before I lost my looks, haha!).  It was regarded with a shrug as something that went on.  Indeed, at some level, ‘Not So Innocent’ must draw on the experiences I had as a young academic at a number of conferences.

At one, I allowed myself to be seduced by an older man who was also the leader of a rival project.  He was charming and intelligent, and I was lonely and desperate for comfort.  It later transpired that he was only interested in me because he thought he could extract from me details of what our project was doing.

And this is where the question of consent comes in.  We had fully consensual sex that night, but it turned out that we were consenting to two different things.  I thought I was consenting to beginning an intimate relationship with long term prospects.  He thought I was consenting to being exploited for information.  The question of consent between two people having sex turns out to be a lot more complicated than just ‘do you want to, or not’.

My own experience of conference ‘pursuits’ is not something I have examined much before, except to realise that its pretty exploitative, but I can see that in writing ‘No So Innocent’, I’ve displayed some attitudes that I had internalised without thinking.  Instead of thinking: ‘this is what happens’, maybe I should have realised: ‘this isn’t something that should happen.’

I began to reflect on ‘Not So Innocent’ in a different way, by considering what both James and Lewis are consenting to, and what Innocent is implying.  Would she really go through with her threat?  I think not. I think she’d sit James down on the end of her bed and give him a good talking-to about how much he loves Lewis, and how much Lewis clearly loves him.  I think I knew that when I was writing it.  I think James knows it too.

And even if they did have sex because he chickened out with Lewis, I think it would be lovely, passionate, and above all, uncoerced.

There was intended to be a sexual frisson between James and Jean.  I wanted him to be torn to a certain extent, attracted by the prospect of Innocent’s considerable charms.  I happen to think she’s a very sexy woman, and I think James sees that, just as she finds him attractive.  I realised I underwrote the irony because while I was writing, I wasn’t sure how the thing was going to end – and I secretly wanted James and Innocent to end up in bed together.  That is the danger of publishing an unpolished quickfic.

As for the scene where James gets into bed with Robbie, I honestly don’t think there is a consent issue there.  Robbie is clearly consenting, and if he wasn’t, he’s quite capable, both in terms of physical strength, and authority, of ejecting James.  In my opinion, it is clear that they are also both consenting to the same thing, and they both know it:  the start of a loving relationship, and the end of their unrequited yearning for each other.

And yes, it would be different if it were a man getting into a woman’s bed uninvited, or a man threatening a woman with seduction, but that isn’t what is happening.  These are two people who are in love, finally being pushed through their inhibitions by a fond friend.  The fact that they happen to be co-workers, with the ensuing power-politics, becomes irrelevant in the face of love.

I wish I hadn’t deleted the story, because I have deleted the comments of the readers as a result.  I wish I had left it so that people can make up their own minds.  Because, if nothing else, this story might make people rethink attitudes at work that they have previously taken for granted as normal, as I have.

I also think its a work I have clearly under-written in terms of subtext, and all the participants’ complicity, but I’m not going to rewrite it, or change it in any way.  I want it to stand as a testament to the fact that I will no longer throw my toys out of the pram because someone doesn’t like my work.

I have never censored myself because of a review, and I won’t start now.

So I’ve decided to republish ‘Not So Innocent’ on AO3, so that you can make up your own mind.  I’d love to have a discussion with you on the subjects raised, either in the comments here, or on AO3.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you,

love EF

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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

Help will come

Life Org kit I was working on my Life Organiser last night for the first time in a couple weeks (it’s been a hell of a couple of weeks), and the quote at the top of the page for Week 43 in Jennifer Louden’s book just jumped right out at me:

A thunderbolt illuminates your heart: it isn’t your job alone to fulfil your dreams and give birth to your yearnings. You can relax and ask for help, and help will come.

It was that last sentence that jumped off the page at me.

Help will come.

Help will come.

All you have to do is ask.

Lately, I haven’t been asking. Actually, let’s be honest here, I have the greatest difficulty in asking for anything, ever. It’s one of the hardest lessons I have had to face with chronic illness. Sometimes, you just can’t be perfect and do it all. Or maybe, do any of it. You have to ask for help.

Whether I need to ask for help cleaning the house because I’m too exhausted to push the vacuum cleaner, or I need help from my Muse because frankly, ain’t nothin’ goin’ on in my storyworld, it is really, really hard to admit I need help.

Usually, I do the passive-aggressive woman thing of wearing myself out, reducing myself to a stressy heap of tears and vitriol, and then Husband put his hands on his hips and says in a despairing tone: ‘well, you only had to ask.’

I’ve been feeling really stressed for the last few days, and not very well at all, and if I was one of those organised bloggers who writes their posts weeks in advance, I would have had a bunch of spare posts backed up to cover me for the times where my brain goes blank. But I‘m not. I’m a ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ kinda gal, and I really like being able to write what I need to write when I need to write it. I need my posts to feel current for me, otherwise they come out creaky and preachy. Or at least, I think so.

So I didn’t write on Monday. I just couldn’t.

Instead, I had a bit of a meltdown.

On Tuesday, I decided to trust to the Muse. You could say that I asked for help. I trusted that some inspiration would come along. I listened. And while I was listening, I got down to a few other things, including my Life Organiser.

Bingo!

The action became the lesson. Trust. Ask. (Keep busy while you are waiting.) Help will come.

And it did.

If you are struggling with your creativity right now, ask for help.

Maybe you just need Grandma to come and look after your baby for an hour so you can write or read a book by yourself. Maybe you need someone to hoover the carpet, which will give you enough time to do something for yourself, something creative.

Or maybe you need to ask the Universe for help, to look up to the sky and say ‘Please could you send me some inspiration, because right now, I’m a bit blank.’

Then listen.

(The listening part is the important bit.)

As I mentioned in a recent post, silence helps.

If you can’t find silence, do something that will allow your Muse to speak. Morning pages; perhaps, a walk around your neighbourhood with your camera; a few writing exercises. Do your Life organiser, or read a book. Allow yourself to be open. Make peace with your temporary stuckness, but act in a way that will allow whatever message your Muse has for you to come through.

Help will come.

Your job is to be gently open to it.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Benefits of Giving Up

The Cumberbatch

Gratuitous Cumberbatch photo. Just because I felt like it!

Dear Reader,

I want to tell you about why its sometimes a really good idea to give up.

You weren’t expecting that, were you?

In my last post, I wrote about the folly of trying.  Of pushing ourselves beyond endurance, and as a result, being unable to achieve the things we want.

That post was an example of me writing my own permission slip.  That day, I took my own advice.  I gave up trying.  I spent a lot of time just lying around.  I felt terrible, so why do anything else? I simply surrendered to what my body was trying to tell me.  Which was, in essence, ‘STOP’.

So far, so good.

The next day, I woke up at 8.30am, earlier than I am normally able to do, and in addition, woke with a clear head.

I grabbed my laptop and opened it up.

And I wrote.

I wrote all day.

In between spells of writing, I stripped the bed, put clean sheets on, did three loads of washing, tidied the kitchen, ironed some fresh pillowcases, made some long overdue phonecalls, and cooked a lovely supper for Husband and myself. I got so much done!

By close of play, i.e.11pm, I had written (get this) 6470 words.  Thats 27 pages.

The most I have ever written in one day.

(Round of applause, please.)

And all because I had given myself some much-needed space.

This is why you must learn to stop.  Yes, it is important to write every day.  Little and often is imperative.  Regular practise for any art form is necessary.

And there will be days when you sit down at your desk or in your studio and think:  ‘I really don’t want to do this today.’  And when you start, the brush strokes will be ugly or the words will come out like lumps of lead.  And then you will get going and things will flow and it will be alright.  (In fact it will be better than alright.  Because all the pain and depression you may have been struggling with will fly away, and creating will heal you.)  That is the point of any practise.

I am not saying you should only write when you feel like it.

What I am saying is that you must recognise that there are some days when your body is leeched to a husk, when your brain is too full or too empty to do anything but be.  Those are the days when you need to be gentle with yourself.  To put away the expectations.  And you will know those days.  The days of crisis.  The days when Life just steps in and pulls the carpet from under you.

If, like me, you live with chronic illness, working out which those days are becomes a little harder.  After 17 years, I am getting better at it, but I’m still not great.

The important thing to remember is that when you release the pressure on yourself, the result is often magic.

Its very Zen to say: let go of perfectionism, let go of expectations, but its easier said than done.  We all carry expectations from society, our upbringing, our peers and ourselves.  Letting them go is a daily practise in itself.  I am reminded however of an old saying I once heard:

“Let go, and Let God.”

Once we stop trying, once we stop tensing up and forcing things, the creativity flows through us freely onto the page or the canvas or the keyboard.  When we are free to make crap art, we learn.  And invariably, in my experience at least, when we give ourselves permission to make crap, what comes out is pure gold.

So here I am, in the aftermath of this great day of writing, assessing what I have learnt, what I can take with me from this experience.  I don’t know if what I wrote yesterday was gold or dross.  Chances are it will be about 50/50.  I don’t really care.  To be frank, it was fun.  It was an enormous relief just to spread my wings and fly without judging myself at all.

And I’m looking forward to doing it again just as soon as I can.

Happy creating,

EF

 

The Folly of Trying

My counsellor told me a story:

A man was asked at a conference to come up onto the stage, where the speaker had set a single chair in the centre.

‘Try to pick up the chair ,’ the speaker said.

The man picked up the chair.

‘No, you’re not getting it,’ the speaker said.  ‘Try to pick up the chair.’

The man picked up the chair again.

‘No, you’re still not getting it.  TRY to pick up the chair.’

The man put his hands on the chair and then, in a flash of inspiration, he understood.

Because TRYING to pick up the chair is not the same as picking up the chair.

If you TRY, you never actually achieve the action.  You just TRY.

Or, as the venerable Yoda said, in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’:

Try not.  Do.  Do or do not.  There is no try.

(I had that on my door at college.  I don’t think I understood it then.  Now I do, I really, really do.)

This wisdom has really been banging on my door today, as I struggle with a cold, coming on the back of a bad spell of IBS and ME/CFS.  I am busy TRYING.  Trying to get better.  Trying to feel well. Trying to cope with the housework. Trying to write.

Sometimes you have to recognise the wisdom of ‘Do or Do Not.’

Lately, I worry that this blog has become more about illness and less about creativity.  More about my TRYING experience.  But I think it really is an important lesson to learn for creative people.  We push ourselves and push ourselves, driven by expectations and perfectionism and Gods-know what demons we have inside us, deftly planted there, no doubt, by our loving parents. We dance the dance of the OUGHT-hogs.  The SHOULDS.  We are so busy forcing meaning into our lives as creatives, as Eric Maisel ill-advised (IMHO), that we pulverise our souls and our bodies into gibbering wrecks, terrorised by all the goals we fail to achieve and the standards we are incapable to meeting.  Books about how to write invariably advise the student that they have to write every day, no matter what.  I don’t think thats healthy or, frankly, practical.  Of course, it helps if you can.  A lot.  But seriously, who can write when their child has been up all night vomiting, or they have just received a redundancy notice?

Sometimes you have to treat yourself with loving kindness.  Sometimes you have to lower your expectations, and maybe even give in to the avalanche that Life has dumped on your head.  I have been talking to several friends who are all struggling with ill health this week, recovering from cancer treatment or at the end of a difficult pregnancy, or even in bereavement, and I truly believe that this is something all of us needed to hear.

Sometimes you are allowed to stop trying.

Sometimes its good to stop trying.

And then, when you have given yourself a break, a rest, a time of wound-licking, you can get up and go and do what it is you need to do.

MInd you, I have probably just proved myself wrong by writing this blog post, because I’ve spent the last six hours lying in bed groaning, absolutely convinced that I couldn’t write anything today.  So there you go.  Take from that what you will.  Just promise me something?

BE KIND TO YOURSELF

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Life – A Work in Progress

Saxlingham Summer Blues:  Partially finished, hand stitched quilt made by me.  Each square is 4x4cm.

Saxlingham Summer Blues: Partially finished, hand stitched quilt made by me. Each square is 4x4cm.

One weekend, I found myself doing some major revisiting.  Old issues, old passions.  Let me explain:

I was having a clear out, and I opened a box to find a large stash of fat quarters.  Patchwork and quilting enthusiasts amongst you will know what I’m talking about.  Fabric shops sell specialist, high quality cotton patchwork fabrics in small amounts, as well as by the metre – by the quarter yard or metre, in fact, or, in the trade, ‘fat quarters’. (Don’t ask me why ‘fat’ ones, I have no idea.)  They are much cheaper and allow you to build up a big selection of colours and designs for patchwork projects with a lower investment, because you usually need fairly small quantities for such projects.  Every quilter will have such a treasured stash.

I haven’t done any patchwork in quite a large number of years, and I don’t see myself doing any again for a while, if at all, so I decided to hand my stash on to someone who would use it.  Going through the wads of cloth reminded me of the time in my life when quilting was my main creative outlet, of the colours and patterns I was into then, of William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites, of earthy reds and browns, and sage greens.

I’m a different person now.

I’m all grey and blue and white and Modernism these days.

It is not that these old perferences have dated.  Its just that I have moved on.

Later that same weekend, I found myself discussing an old trauma with dear friends, something that happened long ago, but that is an underlying influence on my life even now.  I have processed so much of the pain and damage of it that it has become part of the landscape of my life, as much as the tree outside my gate, and like that tree, I acknowledge its structuring presence, but I rather take it for granted, and essentially ignore it unless it specifically comes up.

And when it came up, it raised with it new issues.  I realised I would have to revisit my past, and look at old hurts with new eyes.  As I do so, I realise that I am a different person now, that I have come a long way.  On our journey through life, we bump up against some issues repeatedly, and its easy to get frustrated when this happens over and over again.

Life is not a circle

Bad, hand drawn graphic of how I’m trying to explain this…

Our lives are not circles in which we come up against the same old stuff every time.  Each time we encounter them, we are further along in our healing process.  Life is like a spiral.  Each time we encounter our pain, we can see it through a new perspective.  It re-emerges for a reason, because more healing is needed, more work must be done.

Another bad, hand drawn graphic to illustrate how we encounter triggers as a spiral on our life journey

Another bad, hand drawn graphic to illustrate how we encounter triggers as a spiral on our life journey

It took me a long time to understand that I was not a bad person because my tastes changed over time.  There is nothing wrong with leaving old interests behind and developing new ones.

Going back over old hurts doesn’t make me a bad person either.  When there are new things I need to explore about them, it is okay to do that.  Writing helps.  I am now able to engage with my old wounds through my writing.  Last time I did so, the result was one of my most popular stories, ‘The Case of the Cuddle’.  Now I find myself finally working with commitment on its long-anticipated sequel.

I wasn’t ready to do it before.  I did not have the impetus.  Now I need to speak the truth that its plot entails.  If I cannot do it in my own life, then I can do it through my story worlds.  I thought I had left the ‘CuddleVerse’ irrevocably behind.  I thought I was healed.  Now I understand, that healing, just like creativity, is a process.

I can’t tell you when the final installment will be ready to read.  I can’t even tell you if it is the final installment.  I may still have more healing to do.  Like the half-finished patchwork in the picture above, it has sat in a digital drawer for two years, waiting for me to be ready to handle it.

Some things we leave behind, and some things we need to come back to, time and again.

And that is part of Life – The Process.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Are You Enjoying The Journey?

Are you enjoying the journey?

Are you enjoying the journey?

My niece has just got into drama school. After a long spell when she was not acting, she turned up at the audition feeling rusty and nervous. Afterwards she told me that doing the audition reminded her of just how much she enjoys acting.

She always laughs about how she will buy me a car ‘when she is rich and famous’, and its true, she does want to be famous, but only because it will allow her to get better roles. Her heroines are not the Hollywood starlets who are famous for being pretty (not that she isn’t pretty), but actresses who are famous for excellence – Emma Thompson, Harriet Walter, Fiona Shaw.

This made me think about the chapter in Ann Lammott’s seminal book about writing, ‘Bird by Bird’, in which she talks about those students in her writing classes who are only interested in learning how to get published. Getting published is only a minute fraction of a writer’s life. If you are only interested in that, why go through the long, hard slog of writing a novel in the first place?

You have to like writing. You have to like the process.

There is no point in setting out to be a great painter if you hate getting your hands mucky with paint.

There is no point in applying to drama school because you want to get famous, not because you want to act.

If you do either, you are surely going to spend a great deal of time being very miserable indeed.

When you decide to dedicate yourself to an art form, – or any activity, for that matter – be sure why you are doing it. There are a damn site easier and more reliable ways of getting rich and famous than writing a novel. You’d be much better off buying a lottery ticket or robbing a bank (not that I would condone the latter of course!).

Be creative through a medium that you love, because you love doing it.

Fame and riches may or may not follow, but one thing you can be sure of is that you won’t be miserable while you are waiting for it. You’ll be having a nice life. And lots of fun. Which is really the whole point, isn’t it?

Happy Creating,

EF