Category Archives: Self Reflection

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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The Friday Review No 8: Exploring the Shadows

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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

Writing is from the Soul

 

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The novelist, PD James

‘Part of our duty as writers is to do the work of honestly determining what matters to us and to try and write about that.’

Julia Cameron, ‘The Right to Write’.

I’ve always thought that writing comes from a place deep within, but this last few weeks has confirmed that view in a very deep way.  I’ve been working with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, as I sort through ideas for my new fiction project.  I’m still not sure if it’s a novel or quite what it is.  I have characters and a setting, but I don’t really know what it is about.

And I’ve been going through something of a soul upheaval at the same time.

Like a huge game of Tetris, bits of me are moving about, realigning, making new connections.  I am understanding myself in a new way.  I am beginning to accept parts of myself I could never even acknowledge I had, so shameful to me they seemed.

All this is coming out onto the page.

Let me tell you a story:

Years ago, I went with my mother-in-law to an event held at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.  Surrounded by trays of dead beetles, dinosaur bones and stuffed animals with scary glass eyes, we sat in an audience and listened to PD James and Colin Dexter talk about writing.  I think it may have been one of the most important experiences of my writing life.

Now, let me set this in context.  I had fallen in love with Oxford primarily because I had discovered Inspector Morse.  (Actually, I had fallen in love with John Thaw, but that’s another story!)  The romance of the city and its surrounding countryside connected with something inside me.  It sang to my soul.  I’d read all the Morse books published up until that point, some of them several times.

In contrast, I hadn’t read PD James at all.

And then the strangest thing happened.

I listened to Baroness James, this tiny little Marple of a woman, sit there and talk about her passion for stories, about how everyone has a story and how she loved listening to them, from her hairdresser to the train guard on the tube.  When she talked about writing, she blossomed, expanded.  A light shone from inside her, a light to which we were all drawn.

Then I listened to Colin Dexter talk about how he wrote the first Morse novel, ‘The Dead or Jericho’ as something of an intellectual exercise.  After all, he said, a detective novel is very much like a crossword, and I designed crosswords, so I wondered if I could do the same with a detective novel.

The contrasting lack of passion was chilling.

And I knew which kind of writer I wanted to be.

I shall always remember Dexter’s cold, dead, fish-eyes as he talked about plotting fiction in the same way as any problem must be solved.  I confess I conceived an intense dislike of the man at that moment.  It seemed to me he was subverting an art form, reducing it to something cold and empty and mundane.  Of course, there must have been more to him than that, because I’d read the novels, and I had seen the skill he had in painting character, but to me there seemed something lacking, a vacancy in his art, not least because he clearly didn’t regard it as art.

And beside him, PD James prickled quietly.  She was a woman with a passion, with a deep soul, a woman who wanted to explore the darkest depths of the psyche, a woman with a profound love for her fellow human beings.  It was obvious to me from her body language that she didn’t like Dexter’s clinical approach, that it irritated her.  I don’t blame her.  It irritated me too!

I have always written whatever my soul directed me to, taken the stories that popped into my head and followed them, followed my passions.  My themes have been the themes I have been struggling with in my own life.   I just never bothered to name them, to deliberately set out to find or understand them before.  Lately I have been doing just that.

I’m not the clinical type.  I need to write what I need to read.  I need to explore my own psychodrama on the page, use it as fuel for my work.  At this stage in my life, I need to know myself deeply, to uncover my own hidden depths, and to write about them.  To write them out of my body and mind, and away.

That is why this new work is taking so long to form.  And why I am deliberately allowing it time to form.

Usually, I start with the idea of a plot and gallop along, with characters being tugged behind.  If they get developed, so much the better, but often they end up at the denouement as thin as paper.

This time I am starting with the characters, with their souls, with their issues, their worries, their suffering, their joys.  I trust that they will tell me what their story will be.

This is not a crossword.  Neither is it a hundred metre dash.  It is a slow, steady, indefatigable hack through dense jungle.

Sometimes, you have to take it one day at a time.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Friday Review No 7: I’m running away

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Mouldings on the roof of the Radcliffe Camera reading rooms, Oxford.

In the last week, my husband and I have both been pining for Scotland.  Usually at this time of year we are making preparations for a holiday to the Western Isles (if we can afford it).  We happily run away to the Islay Whisky Festival, and it’s wonderful.  We were there at the end of May last year, and it was one of the best holidays of my life.

And I haven’t had a proper break since.

No Christmas, no Easter, no weekends off.  I’ve been away repeatedly, yes, but to my late mother-in-law’s house in Oxford, or to my mother’s in Hampshire.  Not for holidays, but for Doing.  In the past, my mother’s home would have been a haven to holiday, but now she has dementia, and so it has become a place of caring and problem-solving.  Not restful.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a bit of a meltdown.  I’d had enough.  No breaks, and all the emotional wreckage of the last six months had taken its toll.  My husband had just come home from his annual walking holiday in France with his pals, but I don’t have the money to do that kind of thing, nor the energy, of course.  (In fairness to him, he feels bad that he’s had a break and I haven’t.  And I certainly didn’t resent him for a much-needed and healing respite.)

Anyway, I decided enough was definitely enough.

So I’m running away.

I don’t have money to pay for a hotel or self-catering bolt-hole, so I’m going for second-best. I’m going back to Oxford for a week on my own.  My mother-in-law’s house is waiting to go on the market, so I can settle in without cost.  I shall pay for my keep by juggling estate agents and various visiting tradesmen – it is amazing the little jobs that have to be done, and someone has to be there to let people in to do them.

I intend to rest.  And read.  And journal.  And write.  And perhaps even draw.  I shall laze in the lovely secluded garden – I’m hoping for good weather.  And then there is the City to revisit.  I spent a great deal of time there in my younger days, not simply when my husband and I were first dating, but long before then, when it became a sanctuary from the emotional upheavals of my life.  I want to reclaim the city I knew then, reclaim it from the sad memories of recent years, when it was tainted by the demands of elder care, dementia and death.  I want to walk the streets and soak up the golden light reflected off the Cotswold stone.  I want to look up and see the curlicues of the college windows, the gargoyles and Classical statues, the wisteria and the laburnum.  I want to walk in Christchurch Fields, rummage in the Covered Market, and eat lunch at the Nosebag café.  I want to walk up the Cowley Road and feel the vibrancy of the various ethnic communities that have settled there.  I want to glide through the Ashmolean Museum, letting the beauty of the ages sink into my very pores.

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

I want to please myself.

I want a week-long artist date.

I want to find myself again.

I want to eat salted caramel brownies at the Barefoot Café.  (Which pretty much amounts to the same thing!)

It will be a celebration of no wireless connections, with only my minimal phone data tariff to support me.  I hope I shall have enough on my slate to be able to document a few of my adventures on Instagram.  Rest assured I shall be taking lots of pictures.  But it will be something of a relief to be somewhat incommunicado for a while.

I have a journal project that I intend to undertake.  I have been planning it meticulously for a while.  I don’t know whether I shall be able to pull it off, but I promise to report at length when I get back.  And share my strategy so that you can have a go too, if you like.  But I’ve got to test it out, first.

I have a mountain of books to take with me too.  Research for my current writing project, though I might give myself a week off that.  A couple of novels.  Books about creativity and writing.  And no doubt, being Oxford, with Blackwells, and the Oxfam bookshop, I shan’t escape the week without buying a few mores.

And a pile of notebooks are going with me too. With lots of different pens, and a glue stick for ephemera. I plan to soak up the LOT!

It’s going to be quite an adventure.  Wish me luck!

Happy Creating,

EF

The Friday Review No. 6: Listen. Wait. Have faith.

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“… just as a pregnancy must not be over-stressed and artificially hurried for fear of damaging or aborting the child, so, too, a piece of work asks that we not try to force it into unnatural directions.”

Julia Cameron, The Right to Write p164

 

I’ve been running around being Busy.  Hence the lack of Friday reviews lately.  And you know what happens when someone with ME/CFS gets a dose of the Busies.  Eventually, there is a price to pay.  So today I am lying on my bed, nursing a nasty bout of IBS, with every major muscle in my body in a state of semi-collapse.

However.

And yes, there is good news:  Despite the Busies, progress has been made.

Yesterday, I wrote 1058 words I wasn’t planning to write, and as a result, finished a Lewis story that I’ve been working on, off and on, since last July.  Which felt like a double result.

I’ve migrated my Sherlock story, ‘Under The Downs’ onto AO3, with positive results.  Now I’ve got to do the same with its sequel, ‘The Bee House’, but I haven’t quite got there yet.

I’ve had my monthly coaching session with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, and it was, as usual, hugely stimulating and supportive.

I’ve been reading and writing every day.  Morning pages and journaling.  Writing practice.  Jotting down notes and research questions.  Recording those funny moments, observations of life that provide the richness to a piece of writing.

Asking myself questions:

What do I want to say?

What Truth do I need to speak?

What interests me?

What don’t I like to read?

Who am I?

What makes a character?  What is the difference between character and identity?

And so on.

And I’ve been listening.

This major work that is coming, that I am birthing.  I know a little bit about it, but I don’t want to push its birth.  I don’t want to warp it by forcing it to come too fast.  So I just put my pen onto the paper and listen to it.  Allow it to tell me where it wants to go.  It takes time.  But I’m lucky that I am one of those writers who loves the process of writing, not just having written, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker.

Sitting at my desk makes me happy.  I am surrounded by my books, with my vision board for the novel in front of me.  It is my safe place.  My sacred place.  This is where my idea will blossom and grow into something more extraordinary than I have ever achieved before.

I have faith.  Faith enough to wait.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Friday Review No.2

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Well, it’s the end of another week, and I feel like it has been a positive week in terms of writing.  I got my writing practice done on the specified days, wrote two long blog posts, and tinkered with a fanfic I’ve had on my laptop for a while – an idea that has been lurking around for about two years, and I keep coming back to it and fiddling with it late at night, when my imagination is most active.  Maybe one day I’ll finish it, but if I don’t, I don’t mind,  It’s a useful way to try out ideas without making a public mug of myself!

The writing practice is starting to generate little vignettes around a particular character I’m working with, something I’ve never done before.  I’m exploring her thoughts, her feelings, her environment.  I’m taking my time to get to know her.  I don’t know if she is going to turn into something bigger, or if she is just a testing ground for what comes next.  It doesn’t really matter.  There’s no pressure in my writing practice.  The point is to just write.  For 20 minutes or three A4 pages.  Twice a week.  And that’s all.

Surprisingly, what is coming out feels like a new voice, one I tried out by reading a couple of passages to my writers group on Wednesday.  These are my writing pals who I go on retreat with every year, and they know my work from way back, as I know theirs.  The reaction was positive.  So I feel hopeful, motivated to continue with this meditative exploration.

At the same time, I’m continuing to thrash my way through Umberto Eco’s magnificent novel of semiotics, ‘The Name of the Rose.’  It’s a whopper!  I’m finding it is definitely feeding through into my writing, as I am thinking about expressing ideas through objects, through the meaning those objects communicate, a kind of oblique way of approaching plot or character, but it is intriguing to try out.  No doubt more on this in the future.

Next week I am off to Oxford to help with clearing out my late mother-in-law’s home.  It’s a slow process, and an emotionally tough one, but we are getting there, and some intensive time at the coal face will help.  I am interested to see how well my creative recovery tools translate into that environment, working with my sister-in-law in close quarters, and out of my normal routine.  I may end up not managing my writing practice, or even my journaling, or perhaps just jotting down a few ideas as lists as I go through the week.  I’m not putting too much pressure on myself about it, though.  If I get the work done, fine.  If not, its also fine.

Being away does mean, however, that I won’t be able to post next week as usual, as I won’t have access to wifi.  Never mind. I’ll be thinking of you, I promise, and I’ll post the second part of my reading reboot series before I go, so that you can get to grips with my reading habit promoters while I’m away.   I hope you find them as useful as I have.

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