Category Archives: Outflow

The Friday Review: September Reflections

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Andrew Gormley sculpture on top of Blackwells Art shop in Broad Street, Oxford.

Today is the first day of meteorological autumn, and it feels like it out here in Darkest Norfolk, where the nights have suddenly become chilly, and the elderberries are hanging in heavy, bloody bunches in the hedgerows.  It marks the end of a summer we have barely experienced, and not just because of the weather, which has, frankly, been ruddy awful here.

At this time of year I am inclined to be reflective, and this year all the more so, since at the end of the month I will turn 50, an age at one time I seriously never thought I would reach.  The same day will be the first anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death, after a long struggle with dementia.  There’s a lot to think about, as you can imagine.

This summer, I haven’t been very present on this blog for many reasons.  We’ve been in the process of clearing out mother-in-law’s house, ready for its new owners to move in, which has been a long and arduous project, requiring a great deal of travelling, complicated emotions and memories, and an uncountable number of visits to the city dump and various charity shops.  I won’t bore you with the details except to say that two old ladies living in a large three bedroomed house for 28 years can accumulate A LOT of STUFF.

In the midst of juggling estate agents and solicitors, my husband was called in for a routine hernia repair operation, which went well, but immobilised him for a period.

Then, inconveniently in the middle of his recovery, I went down with what was subsequently diagnosed as Menieres disease, a condition of the middle ear which causes tinnitus, pain, hearing loss, debilitating balance problems and bouts of vertigo.

Anybody who thinks vertigo is just being scared of heights needs to be corrected.  It is when the balance mechanism in your inner ear goes haywire and your brain can’t orientate you in three-dimensional space.  The result is like having your head in a washing machine.  Vomit-inducing.  Try having a bout of that regularly for six weeks, and I think you’ll know why I haven’t been writing much.  Thanks, however, to the wonders of modern medication, I am now able to function like a normal human being again, an unbelievable relief.  I have even got my hearing and ability not to walk into large pieces of furniture back!  The fear that I might never hear again, that I might lose my balance permanently, has also faded.  Which is nice. And my husband is fully recovered, so that’s nice too.

My doctor told me she didn’t like the term ‘disease’ when she diagnosed me with Menieres.  She said it didn’t accurately describe the condition.  For me it described it perfectly.  The dis-ease within my skin.  The sense of being unbalanced, literally and metaphorically, as I negotiate this transitional phase of my life.  The stripping back of the extraneous.  There was no energy for anything unnecessary.  No energy spare for anything other than the basic functions of life.  Standing up.  Lying down.  Walking.  Eating. Sleeping.  Seeing.  And most demandingly of all, hearing.

It is amazing how, when life is cut back to the bone like that, when things you take for granted suddenly become unstable, lots of things simply are no longer worth the effort, and some are even intolerable.

I am no longer inclined to take any shit.  I am no longer inclined to care what other people think.  I am no longer willing to tolerate a victim mentality, either in myself or others.  I am no longer willing to do anything but be grateful for every minute of every day.

Yes, Menieres changed me.

The last year has been spent in the aftermath of Alzheimers, midwifing my husband through his grief, and coping with my own mother’s diagnosis with the same disease, an event which rocked my world off its hinges completely.  The trauma of caring for someone with that horrible affliction cannot be underestimated.  I am still dogged by the memory of my normally affectionate and amiable mother-in-law screaming down the phone at me that I was a thief and a liar, and in league with a secret government organisation that was trying to kill her.  Such memories are not easily processed.  By the end of this month, the house in which she spent her final years will be moving into new hands, and we will no longer have to face the feelings of dread driving into the village, which came from our weekend visits to care for her, not knowing what fresh dramas awaited us.  Not having to drive up that road any more will help, I think.

Alzheimers changed me.

This time last year, another life changed radically too.  My niece Phoebe was diagnosed with cancer, a rare and most serious kind that caused catastrophic blood clotting so desperate that her leg had to be amputated.  Her courage in learning to walk again, facing many surgical procedures, and now conventional chemotherapy after the months of oral chemo she has already been through, continues to astound me.  I’m sure she wouldn’t say she was being especially brave.  She is 32 with a lovely husband and two little children to live for.  She just wants her life back.  To me she is an inspiration.

Cancer has changed me too.

Through all this I have written, even if somewhat intermittently.  I have written in my journal, doggedly trying to stay sane through its ink-stained pages.  I have scribbled many writing practice sessions.  I have reflected and plotted in my writing notebook.  I have rediscovered myself after the blinding snowstorm of caring for my mother-in-law, and managed to cling onto myself in the subsequent whirlwinds of Menieres and family problems.  Through writing, I have remembered who I am, and then discovered I am more than I thought I ever could be.

And that is where I am now.

Changed.

I am not sure this chrysalis phase is over yet.  There is plenty more change to be negotiated, not least my own mother’s decline.

But just now, things are stable. Optimistic.  Grounded.  And, thank goodness, not spinning!

So I begin September, my birthday month, hopeful, and in the process of transition.  A transition that I hope to share with you, dear reader.

Thank you for sticking with me.

Happy Creating,

EF

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Exhausted and Overwrought – and Deleting ‘Not So Innocent’

Following mature and thoughtful discussion in the comments section of my last post, I’ve decided to take ‘Not So Innocent’ off AO3.  The whole thing has upset me too much, especially since we are now facing a new personal crisis in RL.  Its just not worth it.

Right now, I don’t want to publish a fanfic ever again.  I just can’t face it.  I’ll get over that, I suppose.  I always do.  I certainly don’t want to spend today writing, as I had planned.

I want to say something erudite about the way women are treated by society, but I just don’t think I can.  I’ll just say this:

Jimmy Saville’s victims number in the hundreds.  More come out every day.

Accusations are now filtering out about not just sexual and physical abuse, but children being killed as part of sex parties by a ring centred in Westminster in the 70s and 80s.

Bill Cosby’s career is in freefall after accusations of rape.

Rotherham.

Birmingham.

Rochdale

Oxford

Telford

Syria and Iraq

Boko Haram

Women being executed for bringing ‘shame on their families’ by being the victim of rape.

Just about every photoshopped photograph in every glossy magazine published anywhere in the world.

Every diet company that preys on women’s poor self image.

Gala Darling’s recent revelations

Every girl who’s afraid to walk down her own street at night, but thinks the only way to be acceptible to her peers is to go out scantily dressed on a Friday night and get so drunk she can’t even stand, let alone take care of herself and keep herself safe.

Every boy who thinks that when a girl says no, she means ‘yes’ because she’s ‘playing hard to get’.

Every person who judges me because I don’t have children, or because I let my hair grow grey, because I’m not behaving like a ‘proper’ woman.

My husband’s 86 year old aunt, who weighs no more than 6 stone, telling me her thighs are fat.

And the fact that the acceptance of abuse is so ingrained in both my mind and yours that often we don’t even notice it.  Because I certainly didn’t.

EF

 

Bun

bun“You know I love you, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but-“

(That’s always the point when you just know you are about to be gently insulted…)

“-wearing your hair in a bun like that puts ten years on you. You’re a beautiful woman and you don’t make the best of yourself. I only want to see you looking as pretty as I know you can, but that hairdo just makes you look old, and you’re not.”

Oooooo-kay.

Wearing my hair in a bun just became a political act.

She’s my best friend, and I love her. And yes, you sometimes need a best friend to tell you that that shade of pink really does nothing for you. Who else can tell you stuff like that?

But why did she have to pick my hair?

Let me explain – because there is so much back story to this one that I hardly know where to start.

I stopped colouring my hair about two years ago. I live on benefits so I can’t afford to get it coloured at the hairdresser, but it was more than that. Dyeing at home is messy, time consuming and frankly exhausting, especially when you have a chronic illness which makes holding your hands above your head pretty near impossible. And exposure to the chemicals really is ‘a bit not good’.

So I am going grey. That in itself is an act of defiance.

We went to a 60th birthday party recently, with guests who were generally aged 45 or over. Mostly well over. Of around 30 women there, I was one of only two who did not have coloured hair. The other was nearly eighty. That synthetically-hued head-count shocked me more than I can say.

When did hair colour become the new norm? (Probably about the same sick moment that pubic hair for women became impossible, but I think I’m glad I missed that, and besides, the infantilisation of women for men’s sexual purposes is a whole ‘nother blog post.)

I have to tell you that I don’t particularly rejoice in being grey – at least not the shade of it that I am at the moment. It will be better when it finally goes ice white, the way my mother and grandmother went. At the moment what I have looks a bit like an accident in a pepper factory. But it is what I am, and if the alternative is wrestling with harmful chemicals in my bathroom, then I’m more than okay with it. It feels right. Sometimes I feel old, and miss my brown locks, but it’s only a temporary feeling. Mostly, I don’t even think about it.   After all, I’m only forty-seven.

The bun thing is an extension of the grey thing.

I hate hairdressers. Going into a hairdressers is to me the equivalent of walking into a room filled with all the trendy girls at school who bullied me and made me feel small because I didn’t have the right clothes or make-up, or a boyfriend. If you asked me what hell looked like, I’d tell you its eternity in a chic hairdressing joint.

Which is one reason why I don’t get my hair cut particularly often. These days, I go to a place where I can just walk in and have a cheap cut, no questions asked, not have to make any small talk, or get to know anybody, or feel inadequate, and walk out again. I go regularly to get my fringe trimmed and to keep split ends at bay. My hair is in pretty good condition as a result. I look after it. I just don’t go overboard.

I had to have a lot cut off a few years back, when it got into bad shape. I went for a bob. I really felt I looked old then. Middle-aged. Like a fat woman who had given up. It was horrible. I hated it. I cried when I got home and looked into the mirror, and swore to regrow it immediately. I’m a long hair person anyway. Short hair just isn’t me.

However, I hate having my hair in the way, so I wear it up. When I was younger, it was thicker, and I could wear it in a French plait. Now it’s so thin, it looks like a rat’s tail hanging at the nape of my neck. No more plaiting for me.

I can put my hair up in a bun, though. A small bun, but a bun nevertheless. I twirl it round my fingers and stick two pins in, and away I go. No need to spend an hour blow-drying, which I couldn’t do anyway – the holding my arms up thing again. I just fix my fringe, pin the rest up, and go.

To me, its simple, elegant, and neat; kept out of the way with the minimum of fuss. And nobody else I know wears their hair like that, so I think its pretty original. An act of defiance. A Post-Modernist statement about self-definition for women in their middle years.

But apparently, it is not.

According to BFF and Husband, I just look like Mrs Pepperpot after a week-long whisky binge.

But you know what?

I don’t care.

Neither of them have come up with a viable, easy, chic alternative.

And actually, I don’t want them to. I like my hair as it is.

I’ve finally reached that much fabled time in my life where I’m happy with my body, and pretty happy in my skin. I actually like my hair like this, and I choose to wear it in a bun because I’m a bun kind of person. It feels as much a trademark as my BFF’s blonde locks or a slash of blood red lipstick.

I was reading an excerpt from India Knight’s new book about how to be a middle aged woman in the Sunday Times the other day, and my BFF’s words echoed what I felt when I read Knight’s bitchy remarks about ‘Hampstead Woman’. I.e.: Who the Hell are you to judge?

This is who I am. I am a woman of 47 who chooses to wear her (greying) hair in a bun.

I could get my hair dyed, but I choose not to. Just because I could, it doesn’t mean I should. I wouldn’t be staying true to my authentic self if I did.   And the whole point of my life right now is about being authentic. Authentically myself for the first time in my life.

And that is the core of the issue for me. I want people to love me for who I am. And this is who I am.

So actually my BFF did me a favour, because the most wonderful thing happened when she gave me her opinion.

I thought, bugger that! I like the way I am!

That, dear reader, was a first.

I have never, not once, in my entire existence, ever rejected somebody’s criticism of my appearance with such concrete assurance and self-confidence. (I’m not sure I’ve ever actually been able to reject someone’s criticism of my appearance at all!)

I can’t tell you how good that feels.

So I love my friend for telling me she doesn’t like my hair this way.

Because she has reminded me that I do.

And I know this post isn’t about writing, or creativity, but it is about being a woman. And as a middle-aged woman, I hate the way society makes me feel I must be a certain way in order to be acceptable. There are no role models for women like me that aren’t painted, surgically enhanced Barbie dollies in suited pseudo-armour.

The best role model I have at my current life stage is the celebrated artist and outspoken transsexual, Grayson Perry. And if that doesn’t say everything about the way our society treats women, I don’t know what does.

Happy coiffing,

EF

 

Unexpected Attack of the Killer Critics

“Well, it smacks of arrogance to me,” she said, when I explained to her what a blog was.  “To assume you have something to say that anyone would want to read.”

After that, I admit I lost track a bit of what she was saying, distracted by the fact that the word ‘ARROGANT’ seemed to be written above our heads in flashing red neon capitals.

And then was somehow branded on my forehead.

This, from a long-time friend, someone I have known for many years through both ups and downs, hers and mine.  I thought she knew how much my writing meant to me,  I thought she understood,

Of course, it all comes from fear.

Fear that the world is changing, and she doesn’t understand it.

It is fear that makes a person, however intelligent, assume that because they don’t understand something, it has no value.  The irony of this position is that it puts the fearful person in the centre of their universe, which is as good a definition of arrogance and egotism as I have seen.

Driving home, I realised my heart was hurting.  I looked up at the sun piercing shafts of silvery light through the evening rainclouds (“God speaking”, as my mother says whenever she sees such a sky) but I couldn’t see the beauty of it.  I was hurting too much.  But it won’t stop me, her criticism.  I will make lemonade.

Why?

Because I can’t not write.

Regardless of whether anyone thinks that what I have to say has merit (and I know some of you do because you kindly subscribe, favourite, like and comment, for which I am eternally grateful), I will go on writing because I am compelled to write.

Because its my job.

It’s my life’s work.

Its what I do.

I don’t get paid for it – not yet anyway, though I have hopes.  Some friends still don’t get that, either.  Their measure of success comes in pound notes.  They can’t understand my ‘failure to monetize’.  They don’t understand that to me, success means averaging 400 readers a day of my fanfiction, over 400 subscribers to this blog, or on some days, just managing to write two or three coherent sentences.

My critical friend doesn’t understand the compulsion to be creative, to have a voice.  She doesn’t get that if I don’t write every day, I turn into the Evil Twisted Passive-Aggressive Psycho-Bitch from Hell.  And she doesn’t understand that:

EVERYBODY HAS THE RIGHT TO SPEAK THEIR OWN TRUTH.

So if you take nothing else away from my work, and from my complaining about my thoughtless friend, or why money-oriented people don’t understand creativity as an end in itself, please take this:

SPEAK YOUR OWN TRUTH.

IT IS YOUR RIGHT.

This is my message to you, and whether it has merit or not, it is my life’s work to say it, over and over again.

Happy Creating,

EF

Creativity Tip of the Day – Positive People

Supportive Friends

Supportive Friends

One of the best ways to enhance my creativity that I have found over the years is to surround myself with positive people who support my work.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

When it comes to actually doing it, though, we often struggle.  Sometimes it is hard to let go of friendships with people who are unsupportive of our creative dreams.  So often, I have heard people say to me:

‘Oh, its so hard to get published, and there are so many people out there trying to do it.  Why bother?’

‘There’s no money in the arts.  You have to get a proper job.’

‘You need to get serious and grow up.’

‘Are you still writing your little stories?’ (This one is the most patronising I’ve had!)

None of these remarks have anything to do with your creativity, or mine.  They are all excuses from people who are afraid to take the plunge and do something creative for its own sake.

Truly supportive friends are enthusiastic.  They want to hear about your work.  They offer helpful and supportive comments.  They will offer to read your writing in a loving and constructive manner (rather than just telling you how they would have done it).  They will take your efforts seriously, and understand that you are doing what you love because you love doing it.  They will never point out how there is no money in it (not true) because they know thats not why you do it.  They will joyfully share your dreams.

Keeping positive is difficult enough in these dangerous and depleting times.  Keeping positive in the midst of a gruelling creative project is even harder.

Yes, we need to be part of a creative community of fellow practitioners of our chosen arts.

We also need to surround ourselves with friends who are willing to cheer us on.  They don’t necessarily have to be people who pursue the same creative arts as we do.  Their creativity may lie in the sciences, applied crafts or in the natural world, or in any other area.

What supportive friends do is share our enthusiasm.

Take the time to cultivate the people in your life who make you feel good about your creativity and yourself.  Find friends who are willing to get out there and cheer you on.  Cheer them on in your turn.  You will find so much creative energy in this simple lifestyle change, and I guarantee that it will enhance your world and your creative practise.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Landing

Yes, there really is a place called 'Rest and Be Thankful', and here's the proof!

Yes, there really is a place called ‘Rest and Be Thankful’, and here’s the proof!

We arrived back from Scotland on Monday after two days of driving, and I am still in the process of mentally ‘coming in to land’.  It was such a wonderful, liberating holiday in so many ways, challenging in others, and there is so much to process, emotionally and creatively.  I’ve come back with a notebook full of ideas and a To Do list the length of my arm.  Amazing how one place can change so much about the way you see the world.  Islay is like that, though.  Clean air, empty beaches, sumptuous seafood, rolling mountains, and kind, friendly people.

Port Ellen, Islay.

Port Ellen, Islay.

I made a conscious choice before I went away to see this holiday as a kind of ‘cleansing’.  I only packed two books, which is unheard-of for me, and made sure both of them could not on any level be seen as ‘work’ – Ben Aaronovitch’s latest novel, ‘Broken Homes‘, which was funny and clever and shocking, and a real comfort book, Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, which I find emormously inspiring.  Frankly, though, I had very little time to read because there was too much to do, and in between, so much wonderful time sitting staring into space and absorbing the fantastic scenery.   We watched no TV at all, barely caught the news (concentrating on weather forecasts instead), and only checked email occasionally by phone.  I took my laptop but hardly opened it (although I did gobble up this wonderful ‘Lewis’ fanfic.)

Husband and I also took the chance on the journey home to spend an evening sitting in a pub, kicking around ideas for new stories and non-fiction books we might tackle.  I love talking about ideas with him, hammering out plot twists and measuring the mileage in a story.  Sometimes there is nothng better than brainstorming with a fellow writer.

I’ve a million photos to sort through now I’m home too.  This holiday has really got me back in touch with my camera, and made me want to save my pennies for a decent DSLR instead of the temperamental compact digital camera I have now.  Its lovely to just ‘point and press’ sometimes, but other times, only a decent lens can capture and communicate the sheep epic landscape that surrounds you.  I promise to share more pictures with you as soon as I have organised them all.

Happy Creating,

EF

Take a Break

It probably sounds like a ridiculous thing to say on a blog about writing and creativity. You probably came here wanting to read about how to kick-start your novel or fanfic, not to be told to

HAVE A BREAK

Sometimes, though, it is just what you need.

Let me be clear here. I am not talking about those Creative Seasons we all have, ‘a time to write and a time not to write’, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes. I am talking about when you are in the midst of a huge creative streak, you are going at it hammer-and-tongs, lost in your story world, your painting series, or the new symphony you are composing.

These are dangerous times. These are the times when it is very easy to burn out.

Sometimes it is healthy for your Muse and you to have a break from one another. Just twenty-four hours or so. Nothing big. We aren’t talking rupture here. Just time to stand back. Take Stock. Take a breath.

Because we all need to take a breath.

(And if you have ever realised that you are so absorbed in a painting or a story that you have been holding your breath, you’ll know what I mean.)

The risk of burning out is a good reason for doing this. You might call it a ‘creativity detox fast’ or something like that. A short spell of time when you can recharge your batteries and see your work from a different perspective. Take a rest. Make sure you look after yourself. Breath. Eat. Move. See your friends. Remember you have a life.

Yes, you have a life outside your creative endeavour. You remember that?   The place where the emails have to be written, the laundry done, the cooking, the dusting, mowing the lawn. Remember that place? The one where you have to wash and brush your teeth, and sleep?

It is easy to forget real life when you are caught up in your creative surges. There lies the path to madness. Or at the very least, gingivitis.

This happened to me on Sunday (not gingivitis, I hasten to add!).

I had been writing pretty much non-stop for over a week. I had thought of nothing else. And then on Sunday morning, I woke up sick of myself. Sick of my own thoughts. Sick of the pile of dirty clothes I had to step over to get to my laptop. Sick of existing on gluten free fish fingers from the freezer (Tesco do reasonably good ones, if you are interested…)

There comes a time in every writer’s life when she has to tear herself away from her Word document and do the necessary.

I did the washing and the ironing, and went to the supermarket for fresh veggies. I did all those horrid, niggly jobs that had been floating about in the back of my skull all week, the things I had been putting off because I didn’t want to do them, and this time I had an excellent excuse (I was writing!!!!). I didn’t power up my laptop till late in the day, and even then, I kept my activity very limited. I didn’t think about my story world, forced myself to not think about it, policed not thinking about it very sternly. (Of course, the fact that I was sick of thinking about it helped.) I watched the film version of Oscar Wilde’s ‘An Ideal Husband’, which was delicious, and read a lovely book.

And for the first time in days, I felt relaxed.

Today, I have resumed writing again, relieved by the knowledge that the bailiffs won’t turn up at the door, as I have now put the cheque for the heating oil in the post. And I feel so refreshed. My writing is better for it too, I think.

Riding your wild donkey to finish your novel is all very well and good, but not if it comes at the expense of your health or your comfort. So be mindful when you are on a creative binge. Yes, ride the wave and enjoy it, but be aware that sometimes you can ride it even longer if you just stop to enjoy the scenery along the way, and do a little housekeeping while you are at it.

Happy Creating,

EF