Category Archives: Speak Your Truth

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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Twelfth Night

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Taking down the decorations

This is the part of Christmas I hate.  The clearing up.

Today is the day for taking the decorations down.  If you leave them up any longer, its supposed to be bad luck.  And since I don’t want any more bad stuff in my life for a good while, I’m diligently stripping the tree, just to be on the safe side.

Once all the cards and baubles are gone, the place looks rather sad and naked.  Empty.  You can see where all the dust and cobwebs have built up.  (I’m leaving the hoovering and dusting till tomorrow, so I don’t use up all my strength in one day.)  It looks especially empty this year because we made such an effort to bring that Christmas magic back into the house.  The first annual holiday without a loved one (in this case, my mother-in-law) is always a tough one, and especially so for my Husband this year, because his mother was such an enthusiast for the season, such an integral part of the family’s celebrations.  We had to make a particular effort to reclaim it not only from grief, but from the difficult memories of the last few Christmases spent in the shadow of her Alzheimers disease.

I think we managed it (mostly).  At least, I’m pretty sure it could have been a lot worse.  And when I came downstairs one evening and found him lying on his back on the sofa, gazing at the twinkling lights on the tree and listening to the soft music of Vaughn Williams, relaxed for the first time in months, I decided we’d found a reasonably happy medium.

Now the Yuletide festical is over, and we have to face the stark reality of a future year, the uncertainties of Brexit and Trump, as well as clearing out and selling the home of a loved one.  However, I don’t feel as desolate as I thought I would.

I always said I was a ‘glass half full’ kind of person.  You know the old adage, the one about looking at a glass with some water in it, and choosing to be optimistic about there still being something left to drink, or being pessimistic about the fact that its half gone.  The joke I heard recently about, ‘well, there’s plenty of space for more vodka’ seems to chime with how I feel today.

The house may feel bald and empty, but now there is space to fill it with new things.  Good things.  Things we can choose together, not the baggage of caring for someone with dementia, of watching her suffering, and of our own powerlessness to help.  There is new opportunity in the space that is left, both by the decorations and the lifting of the burden of caring.  And we get to choose what we fill it with.

Which is quite exciting when you think about it.

(Think of all the writing and painting I’m going to get done!)

So don’t look at your dusty, de-Christmassed home in dismay today.  Look for the gaps in between, the space for possibility.  Don’t mourn the loss of Christmas.  Think to yourself, in your best Mary Poppins tone, ‘well, what shall I do today?’

Happy Creating,

EF

Pivot Points

Let me tell you about the Marie Antoinette watch.

Its said to be the greatest watch ever made.

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

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

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

And its these sapphire pivot points that fascinate me.

Because I’m at a pivot point right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Creating,

EF

New Fiction: The Groupie Situation

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Laurence Fox

One of my writing goals for this summer is to clear the decks of as many of the half-finished stories lurking in my computer files as I can.  I’ve got three or four outstanding Lewis stories hanging about, and since I have a quiet week ahead of me this week, I’m hoping to tinker with them to the point of some form of completeness.

‘The Groupie Situation’ is one I’ve been working on since Laurence Fox started touring with his latest album. I’d been thinking about a story I’d heard of Japanese fans having his lyrics tattooed on their arms, which seemed a bit extreme to me.  I wondered what he must think of that.  And thus this story was born.  And I’ve been playing with it ever since.

I have to admit when I was typing out the synopsis, I suddenly started having qualms about publishing it.  It talks about a woman having an obsessive and paranoid mental illness, after all, and I reckon some people will criticise me for making sweeping generalisations, not least about women.

There will also be those who will criticise my (potentially inaccurate) depiction of medical procedures.  That always happens.

I’m not a doctor.  I don’t want to be a doctor.  I don’t think its necessary to exhaustively research a little story’s details to the point of knowing what size needle a stitch is made with.  The point is to paint an impression for the reader.  A few details should tell them all they need to conjure up a treatment room, whether from their own experience or from TV medical dramas. But any more than that?  No.  Its just a fanfic, after all.

I’ve also decided not to publish on Fanfiction.net anymore.  I’ve had such mindless trolling there, its just not worth it.

I’m putting this fic out in spite of my fears of criticism.

Its a brave act to publish any work of art.  Especially when you are feeling vulnerable.  But I’m increasingly of the opinion that this is my Truth, and I intend to Speak it.  I believe, trust and hope that there will be others out there who will enjoy it in the spirit in which it was created.  I hope you are one of them.

You can read ‘The Groupie Situation’ here at AO3.

Happy Creating,

EF

Sometimes I forget

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You may think things are quiet here at Evenlode’s Friend.

Well, I suppose they are, on the website at least.  Not inside my head, however.  Not inside my life.

I haven’t been writing much here lately because, well, I’m going through another growing phase.  By which I mean, the shit really hit the fan again.

Sometimes you need to take time off for your life.  Sometimes you need to remember to take care of yourself.  And thats what I’m doing at the moment.  Intensively taking care of myself, and Husband, who was recently diagnosed with coeliac disease, almost a year since he was told he had diabetes.  This, along with coping with dementia caring, and my own health issues, has rather forced my hand.

Sometimes you need to take the time to devote everything you have to healing.

And the really odd thing is that this morning, I was reading an article about creative blocks (which sadly now, I just can’t find) and I thought:

I’ve forgotten how to do this.

I’ve been so focussed on healing my life that I’ve forgotten my creativity.  I’ve been so immersed in studying nutrition and recipe books, delving into spirituality and psychology, chanting mantras and ploughing through academic papers on brain degeneration in Alzheimers patients, that somewhere along the line, I’ve forgotten how to write.

Forgotten how to create.

Something new.  Something unique.  Something mine.

A creation that is truly of my soul.

Of course, I haven’t forgotten.  I still tell myself stories at night as I fall asleep.  The stories of love and redemption that comfort me in the midst of the storm, enough to enable me to believe that there is something good at the other end of all this.  Because I’m an old romantic at heart.  Because I believe that there has to be hope.  Because I believe that a hug makes everything better.  Even if its only a hug in a story.

But holding a pen?  A crayon?  Conjuring the contents of a new character’s pocket or handbag? Wondering why a character might take a tennis racket on a train trip to Switzerland in 1947?

Where did that go?

Cue that slightly dazed feeling that something is missing, like a limb, but you can’t quite work out where is has gone, or how, or even when.

I know that what I am doing right now is deeply necessary to my future wellbeing, and that of Husband.  I know I need to step up to the challenges that face me.  I need to delve deeply into my Unravelling.

But I don’t want to do what I did this morning, and sit there, staring at a photo of coloured pencils on a blog post, and feel a yearning that took my breath away.  Somewhere in all this, there has to be space to create.

Sometimes, I forget.

But from now on, I intend to remember.

Happy creating,

EF

Writing is not a Performance Art

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Sometimes, we write what we most need to hear.  And this is one of those moments.  So pull up a chair and a cup of coffee, because I have something I want to tell you that I need to hear:

A friend was publishing a new story in a new fandom. The fact that she was not getting the readership and the number of comments she wanted was causing her great distress. Her predicament got me thinking.

So often as artists, we base our self-esteem, our value of our own work, on what other people think. The family who surround me, for example, do not view me as a ‘proper’ writer because my work does not come neatly packaged between two cardboard rectangles with the name of a reputable publisher stamped on the back. I do not make money from my work. Therefore I do not ‘work’, and I am not a ‘proper’ writer. I am not a stranger to the humiliation of being told at a family dinner to move over because: ‘There’s a writer at the table’, when another relative, a talented journalist (whose work I greatly admire and whose success I happily delight in, I should point out) arrives to sit down.

At our recent writing retreat, my fellow writers and I had a long and animated discussion about the ever-present problem of how other people react when we tell them what we do. One friend told the horrible anecdote of an acquaintance’s response to the news that she was a writer – ‘Never mind, I’m sure you can get a job at Tesco!’

(I know, right?)

I suspect that writers are second only to actors in the low opinion the public has of our earning power. Either you’re Benedict Cumberbatch or you’re unemployed. This completely ignores the thousands of jobbing actors who make a reasonable, if somewhat precarious, living doing low profile but necessary jobs in voice-overs, radio, small TV parts and rep. Indeed, Benedict Cumberbatch has spent a substantial proportion of his career doing exactly that. (If you watch and listen carefully, you’ll see and hear him pop up all over the place!)

The point I am trying to make is that creative people don’t do it for the money. And if you think that, you have missed the whole point.

Modern society, where success in any endeavour is measured in filthy lucre and TV appearances, clearly has failed to read the memo.

Another friend, who has been a visual artist as well as a writer all her working life, which I suspect helps, responds to the dreaded question about earnings thus: “I don’t do it for the money. I do it because it keeps me sane.”

And that is the point.

Writing is not a performance art.

At least, fiction is not. (Journalism obviously is, and I’m still on the fence about poetry!)

Writing is not about the number of comments or reviews you get.  Its not about the number of ‘shares’ on Tumblr.  Its not about the number of hits you get in a day.  Its not about being published by Harper and Collins, or getting an agent from a top agency, or being on an arts programme on BBC4, or giving author readings, or getting your picture in the paper,  or winning the Booker Prize, or making the bestseller lists on Amazon or the Sunday Times, or getting a three book deal, or selling your script to Warners and getting a theme park made out of your book, or making £100k a year.

Writing is not about how many people like you.  Its not about applause.

Writing is about making stories.

We do it because we have to. Because we have a compulsion to tell our stories.

I am delighted to tell you that my fanfiction friend soldiered on against the tide with writing and publishing her new fanwork. Over time she accumulated a substantial following, but more importantly has rejoiced in an explosion of creativity, producing more works and excelling in other art forms as a result.  And I’m thrilled for her.  She is going through a renaissance of creativity because she refused to give up.

“How people receive your gifts is none of your business. You were given a unique set of gifts, life experiences, and passions. Your only job is to share them.”

Rebecca Campbell, ‘Light is the New Black’

When it comes down to it, it does not matter whether family notice that I get over 100 readers a day, a tally that most conventionally published writers could only dream of. (I’m the only person who is hung up about that, after all!)  It does not matter whether they read my work. (Actually, I’m quite glad they don’t!) It does not matter whether they like it. It does not matter whether they think I am an idiot not to charge for it. It does not matter how much I earn or don’t earn, or what other people think of that sum. It really doesn’t matter what people I meet at dinner parties think when I tell them what I do.

And really, it doesn’t matter what my audience thinks either.

The point is to make the art.

And to keep making the art.

To keep on speaking my truth.

Because the people who need to hear that truth will find me. And the rest don’t matter.

Or, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it so beautifully:

“If people don’t like what you’re creating, just smile at them sweetly and tell them to GO MAKE THEIR OWN FUCKING ART!”

Happy creating,

EF

The Muse with the Limp

Walking with my Muse

Walking with my Muse

My Muse is limping.

I’ve only just noticed. I think she has probably been hobbled her whole life. Or at least since my teens. Perhaps even since my childhood.

Since the moment when what other people thought became more important than what I thought.

I didn’t know until I looked at her. I didn’t know until I began to think seriously about her, about where we are going together, about what we want. I think most of all she wants to be set free of expectations.

Other people’s expectations.

Or rather, the way I constrain her by caring what other people think.

All the ‘how tos’ and ‘SHOULDs’ and ‘OUGHTs’. All the maxims and formulas. The schemata and diagrams and plot arcs and exhortations about what ‘The Market’ is looking for next.

Most of all, the Rules. You know the ones. About what is valuable. What is Serious. What is High Art. What is Literary.

I’m ashamed of the art I make. I’m ashamed of the fact that I write fanfiction. I’m ashamed that I write about sex. And about romance. Because romance is tacky and pink and very definitely NOT Literature.

(Never mind ‘Pride and Prejudice’ being a romance. Never mind ‘Jane Eyre’ being a romance. Never mind pretty much every great novel there has ever been having a love story at the centre of it, because this is what we do as human beings – we fall in love. Barbara Cartland made it cheap. Barbara Cartland has a lot to answer for. Or perhaps it wasn’t her fault. Just the fault of the patriarchal publishing industry which packages ‘women’s fiction in pink, tacky covers and gives it all the seriousness of maribou feathers, in order to keep us girls in our place. But I digress….)

One day I was walking along, enjoying the chilly afternoon sun, head in the clouds, and a revolutionary thought came to me:

I can do what I want.

I don’t have to listen to anybody else.

I don’t have to care what anybody else thinks.

I can do what I want.

I cannot tell you how extraordinary that thought was, coming to me not long after I had offered a story to a friend for feedback, only to have it be ripped apart (in a loving way, of course) and then to be told how to rewrite it – as she would have done. I should have known better, of course. The story wasn’t cooked yet. It was still in that wobbly, puddingy state when it hasn’t yet set. Not ready to be seen by anyone else, in other words.   And because I respect her opinion, because she is a SERIOUS writer, a Literary writer, I listened.

And my Muse has needed a wheelchair ever since.

(I note the use of the word SHOULD in that sentence earlier by the way. You see, I’m getting quite good at spotting them these days!)

But what would happen if I decided to disregard what THEY think. All those people out there whose opinion I value above my own?

What if I listened to my gut?

Medical scientists have discovered recently that there are more neurons, using more serotonin, in the human gut, than in the brain. That’s where the majority of your serotonin goes, in fact. That’s why we have what we call ‘gut feelings’.

Maybe I should listen to my gut. And give my poor, battered Muse a bit of physiotherapy. Perhaps I can set her free from all the OUGHTS and find out what she wants to do. Maybe we could have a bit of fun together, the first unrestrained fun we’ve had since I was writing Blakes 7 fanfics when I was about 8!

I’m not expecting to write the Great Novel that way. But perhaps I could just write MY novel.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to throw out all of my ‘How to Write’ books, so I can discover how I write.

Happy creating,

EF