Category Archives: The Friday Review

The Friday Review: September Reflections

IMG_20140804_115126

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

Advertisements

The Friday Review No 8: Exploring the Shadows

toddler sulk

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

The Friday Review No 7: I’m running away

mouldings Radcliffe Camera 14-03-2014 19-38-22 2736x3648

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.

IMG_20140804_115126

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.

Desk May 2017.jpg

“… 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. 5: Practicing My Writing Practice

I’m writing this week’s review a day early, as we are about to take off on the annual canter around the country to visit relatives, which we seem to do every Easter and Christmas.  I’m usually feeling like screaming ‘Stop the world!  I want to get off!’ at this point, but perhaps I’ve finally accepted that RESISTANCE IS FUTILE, and its got to be done.

In response to the impending rupture in proceedings, I decided I was going to make the most of my last remaining free days for a while to get a bit more out of my writing practice.  I agreed with my writing coach, Heidi, that I would do it twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, because they were the days that I had most time and energy – because of my ME/CFS, I have to plan my activities to preserve my energy, and energy intensive activities like going to weekly health appointments have to take precedence over everything.  So I’ve been doing, or trying to do, two a week.

The thing is that when I do it, I find it so productive and enjoyable.  So I thought, why not take it seriously?  Why not try and do it every day?  Or rather, why not have yet more fun? (It’s a no-brainer when you put it like that, isn’t it?)

I’ve managed four consecutive days so far.  This is, I think, because I’m not putting pressure on myself.  I’m doing it to see what comes out.  And I’m discovering a lot.  For instance, the vicar in my novel has a sentimental attachment to a mangy old stuffed parrot which is kept on the table by the door in the Rectory.  The vicar’s wife, who I thought would be adversarial at most, and certainly peripheral, has turned into my heroine’s useful ally, and definitely cherishes a grief of her own.  And I’ve realised that I am deliberately avoiding getting into the mind of the heroine’s employer…. Now why would that be?

It’s all an intriguing puzzle, and I want to know more.  Like reading a detective story, and wanting to know the ending, I feel like this novel is hidden under my skin, entire, and all I have to do is uncover it.  And then the exciting denouement will be clear.

In another effort to entice my Muse out to play, I dragged out the writing notebook I’d started months ago.  It’s a nice notebook, lovely paper, but the cover is boring as hell, so it doesn’t seduce me into using it.  So I recovered it with some wrapping paper I had.  I think the transformation works quite well, don’t you?

_20170413_162149

Before…

_20170413_162544

…and after

So now I’m heading off into the wilds of No-easily-available-wifi-land, with my trusty notebook in hand, and a few half hours sketched into my schedule to do a bit of writing practice. Knowing Oxford, where I’m going, I shall snap a few pictures of sublime architecture and blossom-heavy trees along the way, so check out my Instagram account if such things amuse you.

Enjoy your Easter weekend, dear Reader, and may all your creating be fun,

EF

The Friday Review No. 4: Remembering Stillness and Forgetting Perfectionism

_20170407_142405

Painting by Martin Battye FRSA, and my own inept reflection!

This week has been about catching my tail.

You know those moments where you come out of a period of frantic activity and realise that the house is a tip, and so is your head?  Suddenly you find yourself coming in to land in what you think is home, but which turns out to feel like a strangely alien place.

So I’ve been sitting still.  Listening to the birds outside the window.  Doing self-care things, like going to therapy appointments, meditating, remembering how to do the down dog asana (though in my, case, very badly), journaling, and indulging my muse.

I took myself off on an artist date.  Not to a gallery or the movies.  I went for an hour-long wallow at the library.  I love our library.  Its huge.  I always feel like I’m in a sweetie shop with an unlimited budget.  Sometimes I go in there, and I can’t see anything I want to bring home.  Other times, such as this one, there are so many books I want to take home and cuddle that I just can’t decide.  Well, you can only read so many words in the three week loan period, and I figure the ones I like will pop up again soon enough.  I came home with six, including two art books which I hope will help me to get drawing again.

The choice of art books was partly prompted by a dear friend, Martin Battye, painter and raconteur, Fellow of the Royal Academy and my husband’s cricket club.  He lent me a few of his old sketch books a while ago, as I wanted to write a blog post about his creative process, thinking his images might inspire you, dear reader, as much as they do me.  Then Life happened, and the sketchbooks stayed patiently waiting on my desk in a plastic carrier bag for the time when Life would get out of the way, and I would remember I had a blog!  This week, Martin needed his sketch books back, and I felt awful, of course, for neglecting my promise to him, and his kindness in lending me his treasure trove.  I looked through the pages and was once more dazzled by the obvious fact his work illustrates:

It’s a sketch book.  That means it is a work place.  A place to try things out.  You don’t have to get it perfect every time.  Or, as artist and illustrator Cliff Wright puts it so brilliantly:

‘Drawing is a great medium for experimentation because nothing is set in stone – you can always do another drawing if you don’t like the first one.’

Cliff Wright, The Magic of Drawing: Bring your Vision to Life on the Page, David & Charles Ltd 2008

This has been a revelation to me, a victim of perfectionism all my life.  Even as a kid, I struggled with the idea that I could make a mess and get it wrong and practice till I was happy with the end result.  Somewhere along the line, the idea of playing, and of practicing something to get the hang of it, got lost.  It had to be perfect first time.  Which is, I suppose, why I eventually stopped making art altogether.

Martin’s sketchbooks, the sketchbooks of a man I think of as a ‘proper’ artist, show that making rough sketches, making a mess, scrabbling about to find the right line, are what sketchbooks are all about.  Which makes it alright for me to do the same, somehow.

I’m grateful to Martin for his support and generosity in sharing his work with me, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of the precious images from his sketchbooks with you soon.  In the meantime I’m taking this crucial revelation about perfectionism into the coming days, hoping it will sink in permanently this time, and allow me to try stuff out, experiment, get it wrong.  Because that is how you learn.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Friday Review No. 3: Processing

WP_20161031_14_28_07_Pro

It’s the last day of March, and I’m home after a fortnight of running around like a headless chicken, attending to family duties.  Its been one long, continuous To Do list.

Honestly, I’m knackered.  Even if I didn’t have ME/CFS, I’d be wrecked.

The problem is that there has been so much mental processing, so many emotions, that my mind feels full of fog.  I can’t think straight.  In fact, I can’t think at all.  I feel like I need to be still, wrapped in silence, on my own for at least a week, to get my head around what just happened.

Sometimes, life takes over, and then drops you like a stone, and it takes a while to get back into the groove of who you are and where you want to go.  I have come home to my life of writing and blogging and drawing and being me, and I feel like I have lost the connection with that life.  I feel like an alien to myself.  But all I need is time.

Often in the creative life, we try to force things.  Something monumental happens, the illness or death of a loved one, a new baby, our own ill health, moving house or job, anything that makes for a big upheaval.  And we try to pretend it hasn’t happened, that we can just carry on.

Sometimes, we can.  Sometimes keeping writing or drawing or making music is the thing that anchors us through the storm.

There are also times when we need to sit down and just be.  Times when it is important to assimilate what has just happened.  Times to lay down the pen or the plectrum and give ourselves time.  Time to let this new reality sink in.  And caring for your creativity, and yourself, depends on the skill of knowing which to do.  Today, my gut is telling me to rest and process.  And I am listening.

So I’m giving myself time, and not forcing it.

I had my session with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, yesterday, and it was great.  So much to think about.  I’ve kept up my writing practice sessions, twice a week, just as I promised myself, and Heidi, and you, dear reader, throughout my travels, which I’m very proud of.  And that felt good.  And I’ve been reading – I finished ‘The Name of the Rose’ while I was away, and thought a bit about that.  So progress has been made.  Nevertheless, I know I need to wait till my brain comes back to normal service before I launch into more writing.

I have learnt one important thing this fortnight, though.  It is one I always have to keep re-learning.  (Duh.)  And it is this:

I need to write in my journal.  Every day.  Otherwise I don’t know who I am.

I sat down with my journal last night for the first time in two weeks, and wrote, and somewhere amongst the pages and the scribbled blue shapes of the letters, I found myself again.  Over and over, I neglect to write through difficult times, and then when I come back to it, I realise how much it would have helped me to cope, if only I’d made a priority of it, if only I’d made time.  That can be hard to do when you are at the beck and call of another, especially if its a family member who is sick and needs you, and as a result does not recognise any boundaries and expects you to be on call 24 hours a day.  Its very hard, especially if you are a woman, to set aside half an hour come what may, to be alone with your diary every day.  But if that is the only way to keep your sanity, then it must be done.

And that has been this week’s important lesson for me, I think.  That journaling is the key to my creative practice.  And my sanity.  And probably my identity too.  And it must be sacrosanct.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, must get in the way of my journaling time.  And that includes me!

With that, dear readers, I will leave you, and go and have a soak in the bath with my paralysed, fog-filled brain, and hope it comes back to life soon.

In the meantime, happy creating,

EF