2016 = Losing and Gaining

This has been a difficult year, particularly for those of us who keep watching our icons depart this earth. It reminds us of time passing. We lose people, days, weeks, months, we wonder at the years passing and how can it be that we are that old already? We feel the bite of time’s cold grip, and fight to resist the forces of ageing that remind us that yes,  Bowie was already famous when we were born, and yes, maybe we haven’t achieved everything we thought we would.

What have I lost this year?

Mostly, illusions. This has been a year where I finally understood that the stories I have been telling myself are time-limited, and I simply don’t have any time left.

I’ve lost any illusion I had about the world being a place where justice, good sense and common decency will prevail, as I watch two political systems sink under the weight of ignorance, arrogance and capitalist supremacy.

I have completed my contract as an external examiner for a great institution.

I have lost a few people too, not irrevocably, but as part of the inevitable attrition of life moving on.

I’ve almost lost a part of my body (surgery pending….)

 

What have I gained?

A realisation that life is way too precious to waste a minute.

Why do we waste time on things that don’t matter, and yearn for more time to do the things that really do matter?

A renewed love of writing. I have published so many academic things this year, and found that I love what I do. But I still love to write fiction, and I have completed two novels this year (just squeezing the second one in the last few days of 2016). I completed my midwifery memoir which leaves me feeling both excited and terrified.

I have gained a closer relationship with my sister and niece, who have become my upstairs neighbours.

I have gained a new insight into the rare and precious gift that is womanhood, motherhood and midwifery, and I am more determined than ever that every woman should have the chance to know and understand her body and the forces that act on it throughout her lifetime.

And I’ve both lost and gained my confidence.

The most important thing I have lost?

The need for approval or acceptance from anyone else.

And what have I gained?

Peace of mind.

So that’s how I start 2017….. peacefully. Renewed. Determined. Ready for the next chapter.

 

 

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When I am free

I can hardly believe how many months have passed since I last posted. Post-Brexit, post political disaster cum standing joke, and post chaos of teaching. Yes, it’s been an eventful few months. I have been too busy writing to write, it seems.

There is an elusive state I have been chasing for some time, that point in my life when I am free. Free to write, free to think, to imagine, to dream. Free to sit in the garden and dream, breathing in the summer air. Free to rise in the morning and follow my mind’s path through the day, unfettered by the constraints of the home or the demands of work. Free to simply be.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy my day job. I love it. I love the buzz of busy times, the energy of teaching, the feedback from students. I love the challenge of the workload, the planning, the juggling of priorities. I love taxing my brain with new challenges, such as managing a programme, fostering the development of students, supporting colleagues, and writing academic work. This spring and summer I have completed another five chapters for edited collections, and have continued publishing in The Practising Midwife. I have been studying complementary therapies, an amazing course for midwives, and discovering how difficult it is being a student again.

But I have been waiting and wondering when that elusive day will come, the day that I am free to write. Book number two has been hovering in the background for far too long, a weighty, waiting pressure that builds the more time passes. A recent editorial meeting did not help with that pressure, as I realised just how much work was needed to turn the story into a book. More writing, more editing, that skilled crafting of plot and character, building pace and depth. There never seems enough time to do it all.

When I am free, I keep thinking, I will do this. When I am free, I will do that. But the fact is, the day will never come when I am more free than I am today.

Let me describe my current situation. My garden is overgrown, although a couple of days of blessed sunshine at least has allowed me to mow the lawns. My beautiful flat is a mess, and if these walls could talk, the would be begging for some cleaning spray and a jay cloth. Spiders have taken over almost every possible corner. Something unnameable is growing on the bathroom rug. Clothes, which until a few days ago were simply piled on every surface in the bedroom, have been hung up unironed. My desk is piled with the detritus of end of course thank you gifts, notebooks, magazines and bits and bobs from the garden as it is the first surface available when I walk through the garden door. My bed is unmade. The floors need sweeping and vacuuming. I can’t remember the last time I dusted.

But in front of me is a folder, with some yellow pads inside, and a printout of the novel. The last two days I have been writing. Reading, yes, watching the odd film, washing up  and cooking, but, most importantly, writing. I hit the wall, initially. I was looking at a load of notes and panicking.  Then it came to me. Every day starts with a decision. We decide what to do first, and what to do next. And that means, regardless of the other demands on my time, it is okay, sometimes, to just write.

Everything starts with the first step.

And then another, and then another.

I’m going to need a new yellow pad soon, I’ve managed to write so much, and yes, there is more to do, but I can see my way over the wall now. It’s all about priorities, about making writing as important as everything else in life.

I know where I am going and there is no one to see or care if I am surrounded by mess, or if I haven’t done the dishes, or polished the cat. It will all get sorted eventually.

When I am free.

 

 

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Words, Tea and Synchronicity

It’s Saturday, a day which conjures up rest, relaxation, and for many people, socialising. Finding my plans for the evening scuppered, my first thought is housework (overdue hovering, a desk that needs tidying, etc). But my second thought, as always, is writing. This is the story of a writer, on a Saturday night, suddenly cast adrift again with the luxury of time and space and inspiration, who finds a strange kind of synchronicity in her work. It’s one of those times when, despite the insistent mundanity of the everyday, the siren call of the woman’s lot, ghost voices of mother, sisters and past lovers saying that a real woman has a clean home, and only a slattern would leave the hovering and the dust and take up writing, despite all of that, this woman sits down to write. Sun and crisp evening air spilling in through the open door to the garden, light on the crumbs and dirt on the rug. Shadows shift to show the clumped cat hair in the dark corner, the disordered cushions, the tea-stained mug bearing mute witness to the passing of the day. And there, here in fact, on the worn, dusty-rose-pink chaise longue with its multi-coloured throws, a woman writes. The emptiness of sudden free time is filled immediately with waiting words. Did I say waiting? Yes, they have been waiting, words formed up into orderly queues pushing at the doors of the mind, desperate to rush through. Words crowded around like shoppers who have camped out overnight for the early sales, eager and frantic. Slower words, hesitant and deliberate, plodding along with the certainty that at some point they will, inevitably, reach their destination and become real, like the puppet in the story.

Bland words, blanched words, pale like plants kept alive without sunlight, the ignored words of too many weeks and months and years. This is the writer’s lot, I think, the reordering of not enough time to write, so that these words wait in the wings and like albino spiders, become transparent and elongated in abysmal caves of the mind. Some words are sanctioned and given life, the words demanded by paid word, while others must languish until that elusive moment of ‘free time’ allows them space and egress.  And then, suddenly, the cross-over between selves, strange synchronicity, a place between words, where the creative (in this case, a novel exploring relationships between women, and in particular, the manifestations of control) and the academic (a chapter on lesbian fusion in relationships for an edited collection on women’s relationships) makes me realise that life is about synchronicity. Stories are about synchronicity. The research I do for the chapter inspires my understanding and makes the novel’s words flow; reflecting on the personal and engaging the imagination allows a more seductive shaping of the academic work. A life lived simultaneously in multiple dimensions must engender synchronicity, or else there is only chaos.

But where is the story, you say? Where are the plot, the characters, the obstacles and the inevitable resolution? It’s all there, I answer. All there to be seen. The plot comes from me, the author, and the million and one women’s lives before and after and happening now, from the Vindication of the Rights of Women to A Room of One’s own, all those words that waited in the wings and were never heard, or seen, or talked about. All those women whose stories were never read. And the women whose stories were read. And the ones like me who, despite every convenience of the modern world, find themselves alone on a Saturday night contemplating the housework because that is what women do, when I should be walking the beach, notebook in hand, uncaring, making the words, and only the words, my highest priority, because they have and always will be my first love. Instead, there are these words, and the tea-stained cup, and the two projects sitting hand in hand like twins separated at birth who turn to each other and smile, saying, I know you. A woman who writes is her truest self when she acknowledges where the words come from.

Words, tea, synchronicity. Me.

 

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A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

The flickering, impossibly bright Christmas lights hung chaotically on the small, artificial tree perched on the table in the corner. Anthea acknowledged its ineffable cheerfulness as she took her first cup of tea to the love seat under the window, to sit watching the grey dawn shift almost imperceptibly into day.

The radio, her constant companion, played Christmas hymns, chiming bells, and old classics from her childhood. She smiled a little, at the songs about family and love and desire. Christmas stockings and presents and family. All the things from the past. A sprig of fresh holly arched over the Christmas ornaments on the mantel – the misshapen snowman her son had made, decades ago now, and the battered old Christmas train that had emerged, year after year, to take pride of place. It was showing its age now.

As was she. She didn’t feel as old as she was, but time ticked and the year turned, and even the floods and rain of global warming, the unseasonably high temperatures the weather announcers talked about, even these did not ease the cold in her bones. She was not afraid of her age. Every day was a gift. Anthea feared only the loss of her memories. They were all she had left. Of course, there were some memories best left behind. She would erase those if she could. And yet, even those, as dark and tormented as they were, gave some comfort.

Christmas. Jolly voices and still the silliness of buying, buying , buying, the rush to fill the house with everything, for just one day. Anthea’s Christmas now featured a small Christmas pudding made to an old recipe, half a dozen mince pies, and her favourite roasted vegetables which would be more than enough for one day. That, and the text from Will. He would text, he always did, a long text, rambling, as if he had just remembered he had a mother and she might want some news of him. Forgetful, careless maybe, but he had a life and she had never wanted him to feel obligated. He would have sent a card, he always did, but it would arrive late, sometime in January, battered and damp in the ever-present rain, bearing postmarks and stamps from distant lands. Knowing this, she put last year’s card up on her mantel, next to the card from her neighbour Clay, who, like her, spent Christmas alone. Clay never said what had happened to his family, but there were too many of them, forgotten, the wrong side of fifty, traversing the rocky slopes of solitary middle age towards the beckoning finger of ‘old.’

She was not sad. She had her memories. The oldest ones, taken out and dusted off like the old ornaments, were faded, mere snapshots of childhood. The smell of tinsel, the remembrance of opening a special gift, the namesake doll she had loved until all its hair fell out. Teenage years, yes, she remembered that cusp between child and adult, and the longing to retain the security of those Christmas rituals whilst yearning for a new way of being, of being seen. Then her first marriage, and Will as a baby. All those firsts. First Christmas, first photo with Santa. First affair, first divorce. First attempt at internet dating. Being swept off her feet, and thinking she knew what love was.

Anthea smiled at the tree. Its bent wire branches were a little bedraggled now, but it was an old friend. And beneath it sat her yearly gift to herself, the stack of books wrapped in assorted Christmas paper, saved from the previous year, and the year before that, her gifts to herself. The only things she had ever wanted for Christmas. There had been that year… oh, she shouldn’t revisit it. The damp garden beyond the glass showed storm tossed trees, and her mind projected the images. All the not-so-happy Christmases. The shredded wrapping paper and the screaming, the gifts thrust back at her in disgust. The pressure to perform, all those days of shopping and cooking, preparing, cleaning the house, dressing the tree, buying the right presents, wrapping them just right. Standing dutifully whilst guests arrived, taking coats, providing drinks, snacks, more drinks, changing the music, smiling dutifully, laughing in all the right places. Years and years of it, dressing the table, presenting the perfectly browned turkey, cooking the sprouts the way she was supposed to. And waiting for the words to fall like blows when no one else could hear.

The perfect family Christmas, bookended by expectations and abuse, criticism and censure. The shining epitome of the constant abuse. Smiling and giving effusive thanks for the gifts she did not want. What had started out as a love affair had segued into a series of disappointments, culminating in the penultimate Christmas morning, when she had woken to find the large box with her name on it contained a new hoover. How she had hidden her tears that day she never knew. The fact that Will was there, aged 13, still loving the excitement and delighting in the rising drifts of discarded wrapping paper, had helped her to keep the smile in place. That and knowing what would happen later if she did not.

Happy Christmas.

Yes, it had taken her a year, but it had been worth the wait. Another year of being told she was not good enough, not cheerful enough, not sexy enough, that the housework came before her work, that her career didn’t mean anything, really, that her friends were no good for her, that her memories were wrong, and it had been her own fault that her parents were estranged from her, that her previous relationship had ended. No wonder her ex-husband had had an affair. Smell of well-stuffed Turkey and the stack of presents smaller, Will gone to his father’s that year, after months of negotiations and relationship building, dispatched with love and a sack of gifts and reassurances that she would be fine, just once, without him.

Funny how, now, she missed that concern most. He had been such a caring, loving boy, a considerate young man. But she wondered if that had been compensation for the emotional wasteland of her marriage, if he had known, consciously on sub-consciously, that his was the only light of love and affection in her life.

Anthea finished her tea, looking with satisfaction around the room, revelling in the bookcases and the many ornaments from her travels around the world, the photographs of herself and Will, the mismatched furniture and the colourful throws and cushions. It was unrecognisable as the room she had inhabited all those years ago, with its constantly replaced carpets and curtains, the matched furniture, the ornaments chosen to fit in with a style or colour scheme. This space was organic, growing with time and memory, a testament to a life lived in freedom of self and of expression, a comfortably messy homeliness. No sign now of the torment of years.

No sign except the holly tree at the edge of the lawn, planted that last Christmas, the last Christmas before she had discovered just how much pleasure there was in being alone at this time of year. That tree…. She had bought it especially, part of her gardening duties. She remembered the barbed comments about how long it had taken her to get the garden in shape, finally put some effort it. As if keeping house, managing a career, and raising a child, were nothing if she did not also maintain a beautiful garden.

It had taken her days to get the hole deep enough. It was cold and wet, as usual, and the earth was sodden. There had been roots, and stones, and at one point, the bones of someone’s cat, which she had laid back into the hole gently when she was done. She remembered the sheer physical effort of it all, how she had gloried in the ache of her muscles and the strength in her arms, relished every blister on her hands.

What was it she had been told that year? You won’t be getting any books for Christmas. No good can come of so much reading.

Anthea smiled. All that was good in her life had come from books. Books were the constant friends she had never found in people, the love that she had been denied. Books asked nothing more than a little time and attention, and gave so much back. Feelings, information, dreams and inspiration. Comfort. It was more than enough. Books were the instruction manuals for living a hundred lives. Or just one life. This life.

No more familiar rituals, not after that year. Oh, she had cooked the veggies and all the trimmings, but after that year, she couldn’t bear the smell of turkey roasting. Instead, she had baked a salmon, or roasted beef, or boiled a ham. Will hadn’t minded. Sweet, sunny Will, all he had wanted were his presents and her presence. The absence of the darkness had made their time together so much sweeter. Good memories.

Good memories.

She remembered rising early, that last time, to prepare the bird. How she had stuffed the herbs under the skin, lots and lots of thyme and rosemary, parsley and sage, to hide the taste and smell of the other herbs, the ones she had grown in secret, harvested, dried and kept for this day, this Christmas day, the day she had planned for so long. The first year there were no guests for lunch, the in-laws and the cousins having taken a trip to Florida to escape the greyness and the rain. Just the two of them, and the perfectly green sprouts, and that turkey, the smell permeating the very walls with its fleshiness, is herbal earthiness. Flesh and blood and bone and those powerful green leaves, ground and mixed into the stuffing too, and infused in the gravy. Taking no chances. There was no room for error. Of course, Anthea had been alone with all the preparations, as always. The kitchen was her domain. She was the wife in this relationship, that was her role. How she had smiled then, all fear passed in the face of the act. It had been so simple, really, in the end. Though she had taken the precaution of burying the turkey under the holly tree, deep at the bottom of the hole, covered by the bones of the cat and the sodden earth and the displaced stone. She had flushed the gravy and the stuffing down the loo. The almost clinical cleanliness of her kitchen had been no cause for concern, as family and friends had attested. It was always spotless.

And no one had known. She had read widely, done her research well. Amazing what you can find in old books, isn’t it, including the perfect poison, the one that is metabolised so fully it can’t be found in a post-mortem? You wouldn’t find it on the internet either. Just in an obscure old book bought in a second hand shop, dustily occupying its shelf space with no indication of its contents. And there were so many books, so many shelves, even if someone were to grow suspicious, it would take years to trawl through every book for a clue to how she had done it.

She remembered the table, with the festive table cloth, the new red and gold cloth napkins, the best crystal glasses. Red candles flickering. The pop of the champagne cork, the fizz of the bubbles in her nose. She remembered the toast, to another year together, to happiness, and the crackers with their disappointing contents. Silly hats and terrible jokes, and her painted-on smile. She remembered how well the turkey had carved, juicy and succulent. How beautiful the plates had looked, the bright colour of the cranberry relish, the neat pool of gravy, the golden roast potatoes. She remembered how she had nibbled carefully on a potato not touched by gravy or turkey or stuffing, whilst watching first one plateful, then a second, disappear into that mouth, that cruel mouth, those lips, the lips that had kissed her so skilfully, seduced her so surely, wooed her and lied to her and turned vicious, in the end. How the first spasm hit shortly after brought the mince pies into the living room, and refreshed the large glass of wine. She had not expected it to be so painful. Or drawn out. It had taken about 40 minutes, in the end, and she had had to turn up the TV to mask the sounds. Ample time to clean up and dispose of the evidence, scour the kitchen thoroughly, and check that the bowl of ‘leftovers’ she had prepared was pride of place in the fridge. She had washed the pots three times. She had even put her clothes and apron into the washing machine, showered, and washed her hair. Reapplied her makeup. The groans had subsided by then, which meant she could replace the phones in their brackets, put the mobiles on the coffee table, and the other gadgets could be distributed around the house, artfully. As if they have never been removed.

It had been dark when she had finally called the ambulance, concerned that the slumped figure on the sofa could not be roused from their after dinner nap. Shock, they said, when she fainted at the news that ‘they had done all they could.’ It was easier than faking any other reaction. There had been the post mortem, the funeral, the sympathy and the grief. Yes, it was tragic. No, she couldn’t quite believe it. Yes, Christmas would never be the same again.

Silent night, a choir singing, painfully poignant. Anthea smiled. Picked up her festive glass of port, left out last night for Santa, and eyed the first mince pie with anticipation. Merry Christmas love, she raised her glass to the holly tree bending in the wind, its green leaves edged with vicious spikes.

And may you rot in hell.

 

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Keeping on Keeping On – Writing Through the Horror

This weekend, I took a draft of my next novel with me to some study days, and one of the facilitators read the first page. “Wow,” she said. “I already want to read on, and find out what happens.” I felt a flush of excitement. Then I felt guilt.

Why?

It’s been a terrible couple of weeks. Atrocities across the globe brought to the attention of the world, but only because one of the bastions of Western culture and civilisation was threatened. My heart goes out to all the people struggling with death and violence, especially those in Syria. As a writer, it is hard to keep going, to keep believing in what you do, when there is so much that suggests that you should be doing something different in the world.

The thing is, writing is a contribution to society. It is a means of sharing knowledge, understanding and compassion. It is a way of shining a light into the darkness of the unknown.  It is a way to entertain and give pleasure to every person who reads your work. It is a chance to stand up in the face of the bullies and say, no, I will carry on as normal. You will not change me. You will not frighten me.

Several years ago I made the decision to write a very challenging story, about a woman who converted to Islam and went to live in Saudi Arabia. Inshallah (published by http://www.honno.co.uk) was a very hard book to research, as I knew nothing about Islam or Arabic culture. It was also hard to write because it was about a woman experiencing domestic abuse. I was afraid, all the time, that I would get it wrong. That I would not be able to tell a story about a woman who found faith and a home. I was afraid that people would assume that the book painted a negative picture of Islam, when I was determined that it wouldn’t. Most of all, I was afraid that by making her husband abusive, people would think that I was misrepresenting men from that culture and faith.  I wanted to show how someone could come to understand difference and realise that it is people who are violent and abusive, not cultures and not religions.

People.

And just as people can make that decision, individually, to be violent, abusive, unspeakably destructive, so they can make the decision to enhance the world, to add to it in a positive way.

This is not a political blog post. It is a statement of intent. I am going to carry on writing. Today, as I finish working on my latest book, ready to send to my editor, I find myself reflecting on how important it is to keep writing. And how important it is, especially, for women to write, and to tell stories about women. Tell women’s stories. Women have been overlooked, made invisible, written out of history and ignored by the establishment. I have made it my life’s work to support and educate women.  I have wrestled with difficult issues, including seeing the disintegration of the society I have known my whole life, the destruction of the NHS in and for which I have worked most of my adult life, and the utter arrogance of our own political ‘leaders’. I disagree with almost every political decision our government make. I used my vote, but I have something else I can use.

I can use my voice. As a writer, as an author, as an academic, I can use my voice. I both hate and love the social media I use to share my thoughts and my writing, but at this moment I am glad of it because it means I have a voice in more than one space. I can use my voice to make a difference.

My next book is not about culture. It’s about people and pain and loss and living. It’s a mystery story, of sorts. It’s about life and birth and work and people. It’s even about midwives, a little. Whoever said writing was easy was lying. It’s hard, but it is so worth it.

This is how we resist. We keep on keeping on. In whatever way we can.

 

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How to be a Successful Writer/ Human Being

How to be a Successful Writer Human Being

I see memes and posts all the time, littered with adverts, on how to be a successful writer. I often read, them, as I am curious about these people who purport to have the secret to absolutely success and some kind of formula that will take you there. I don’t know of any such formula, because to me, it’s simply a combination of inspiration, hard work and self-belief. I say ‘simply’ but really it is perhaps the hardest thing of all to find the perfect balance of these three qualities in my life. If only, I think, looking at the complexities of a modern life and all its accoutrements, responsibilities and demands.

I recently sent a draft of my next novel to my editor. Full of trepidation and second-novel doubts (okay, they loved the first one but what if they hate this, what if I really can’t write after all . . .?) I chewed on my pen a lot and tried to just deal with the feelings, starting to focus on the beginnings of novel number three. Inspiration – I’ve got that in spades. I could write a novel a week if I had no need to work or do housework. Stories spill out of my mind daily; a sudden realisation can shift my awareness of a character or where to take a plot. Determination and hard work I can also manage. I have plenty of determination and can work very, very hard on projects. In fact, I do work very hard in my day job, and I am very productive. I have four chapters in academic books coming out over the next year. Or is it six? Yes, I think six. But I lose track. I run 3 times as many modules as my colleagues. I run a whole course. I have almost 50 personal students. I also have a part time job. I love working hard, I love being productive, I love my teaching and my students. But . . . . I also run a home, a teenager, and two cats. I set aside time to write and ensure I always have my notebooks, pens, work in progress etc with me to make the most of every spare moment, and of every time inspiration strikes.

I wasn’t always this sorted. This year has been my own personal annus horribilis. The spectacular breakdown of my marriage and resultant personal trauma threw me off track. I had to start again, at 44, having sold my home to live in someone else’s, sold most of my furniture, put a lot of things in storage. I had to somehow help my son deal with significant upheaval as he also sat his GCSEs. Luckily, loving friends and family kept me sane, and I came through the other side stronger than ever. But this current novel, number two, was written during that time, and I felt as if I had lost my mojo, as it were, lost my confidence in my abilities. Writing it had, at times, been like climbing a very steep mountain with a blindfold on. Not only was I unsure I would ever reach the top, I was totally oblivious to the landscape, and uncertain whether there was a top to be reached at all. My work suffered, and I was less than productive, less than my usual efficient self. Less than the perfection I demanded of myself.

During the darkest times, like many novelists, I was crippled with self-doubt. There was too much going on in ‘the real world’ for me to disappear into the world of my own creation, live days with the thoughts and feelings of my characters, create landscapes and metaphors and threads of story. I had lost the ease with which I had once woven multiple and many-coloured threads into the tapestry of the tale. Still, I struggled on. The story always wants to be told. This one had been on hold while I wrote Inshallah, and as soon as my debut novel was in its final phase before publication I had started on this crucial, necessary book. More than any other, I knew this one to be the book that took all of my parts and reconstituted them into creative balance.

I was still in that state of flux that comes after major life change, before the roots can settle into the new earth, the leaves unfurl, before the sunlight really touches the green, when I sent the draft to my editor. I felt as if I was signing the death warrant for my nascent writing career. I carried on with my slow reconstruction of self and life, one day and one act at a time. I could not see the whole pattern, but each day was a brick in something I was building, and I knew it was all part of the process. Eventually, the response came, and I felt like dancing. A promising start. It was enough.

I realised, as life built into day after day of new experiences,that I was waking up. That each morning I felt the story-voice calling, and that every aspect of my new life was enhancing that ability to see, feel and give shape to the people and events of my imagination. I had been in the Slough of Despond, or maybe, a wasteland of my own creation. Suddenly, I was free. And it was simple. I felt, and still feel, that my life needed to be less of a hamster wheel. I needed more time. Not necessarily just more time to write. More time to do the things that make writing possible. I needed to sleep properly, be able to appreciate life, spend time with friends and family, create a lovely living space that fully expressed the real me. I needed to work effectively, and have that satisfaction that comes with a job well done. And I needed to feel the energy and vitality that had eluded me for some time.

All I needed to do to improve my wellbeing and happiness 100% was to move to be near work. This simple change in my life (okay, it was traumatic and complicated too) has brought in a new phase in my life. Torn from one routine, from familiarity and a future I had wanted and believed in, I feared it would be my undoing, but it was instead my saving grace. I wake naturally and easily, and feel little stress in the morning, despite my workload being higher than ever and having greater responsibility. In fact, my overall stress levels are significantly reduced. Even in the face of stressful situations, I feel that I have the strength to rise to challenges. In the absence of that stress, into the void left behind rushes inspiration, understanding, clarity and the heightened perception that drives me to write, that makes every morning feel like the start of something brilliant.

I used to drag myself out of bed at 5.30 every day to shower, dress and drive to work early to secure a parking space and miss the horrible, stressful traffic. I’d spend an hour in the morning yawning and trying to wake up whilst driving. I’d leave the radio off because I was too tired not to be irritated by it. I would arrive at work having had a hundred and one amazing ideas along the way (sometimes with the continuation of a story I had conceived of the day before). Every single one of them would evaporate seconds after I had pulled into the carpark, regardless of what I did to hold onto them.

Now, I have a leisurely shower, catch up on housework, usually have a cup of tea, and greet my son each morning before he goes to college. Often I make him a cuppa too. This makes me feel good, being able to do something nice for him. I never saw him in the mornings before, as I was gone long before he went to school. Now we talk every morning, even if only briefly. I write my diary whilst drinking my tea, and my thoughts might be brief, but they flow. On fine days, I sit out in the garden (though now, in September, I am usually wrapped up warm to do so!). My mind floats along meandering and random passageways, and I let it. The things that I need to understand become clear if I don’t try too hard to pin them down. Sometimes this mind wandering, which I find a necessary precursor to effective writing, will continue through the walk to work.

I have a lovely walk to work, regardless of the weather, looking at the birds, the sky, the sea, the trees. I arrive at work feeling energised, alive, and having processed a lot of thoughts and feelings along the way. I am much more productive now in work, and have ten times more energy than before. My memory is improving, and feel no disjuncture between work and writing, because the writing mind, the story voice, is still awake, muttering away happily to itself in the background.

I used to feel drained and exhausted before I even started. Now I feel motivated and focused. I don’t feel rushed to finish up everything by 4pm so I can try to miss the worst of the traffic going home, and I don’t waste a second hour each day driving home, too tired to think, my creative energy dispelled by the day, the drive, the thoughts of all that needs doing when I get in. Instead, I finish my work for the day, and walk home in a good mood, sometimes stopping to pick things up at the shop. I arrive home feeling tired but positive, not drained and ‘flat’. I feel much more energised even after a full day, and this means it is not so hard to do housework, shopping, gardening. If the time is right, I start writing straight away, and fit an hour in before thinking about maybe doing a few chores or preparing some food. It doesn’t feel difficult. If I don’t feel like housework, I don’t do it. It’s easy to keep the place in a state of tidiness and general cleanliness anyway. Germaine Greer, I believe, once said that a woman should never do more than 1 hour of housework per day. I fully subscribe to this philosophy. For a writer, it’s very liberating. Interestingly, a colleague loaned me a book this week, Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light. I have only read a few pages in, but its brilliant. It was in response to my comment that I wished I had servants because it would free me up to write. This isn’t strictly true. I enjoy making order out of chaos, and the sense of belonging that comes from knowing that I made this comfortable home, I gave it shape, I brought all its disparate elements together and I maintain it, is akin to writing a novel. So each feeds into the other. But I still wish I had someone to do the necessary tasks from time to time so I could disappear into my writing.

I now have a better relationship with my son, despite him growing up more and becoming more independent, having his own life in college doing his A levels. This is liberating. I waste far less energy on worrying about him, trying to get him out of bed, and dealing with family conflict. Yes, he is still a teenager. But he’s also a lovely young man and we seem more able to talk about things. He is proud of me, I can tell, and sees my writing as a good thing. He respects my space, despite apparently losing the use of his hands each evening if I am around to cook for him.

I am writing more. It is glorious just to write. To not worry, not think, just write. To set aside time to write. To just drop everything in the face of idea, grab the pen or laptop, and write. To view Saturdays and Sundays as long stretches of possibility. To reward myself after a morning of errands and chores with an afternoon of writing licence. Glorious.

I spend more time talking to friends and to my wonderful sister. Sometimes I work in the evenings too, but this is okay, as I enjoy what I do and if I feel like working, I can work. It doesn’t stress me out. I no longer spend weekday evenings longing to just go to bed. My time is my own.

To be happy, I simply had to remove the worst stressors from my life. Yes, it was a painful process, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. For my health and wellbeing, for my happiness and peace, it was the right thing to do. I think moving here might have saved my life. It certainly saved my writing life, the part of me that has struggled for air and demanded attention since I was seven years old. I was seven when I made up my mind I wanted to be an author. Now, I am doing it.

So, according to the trends online, I am supposed to give the potted version. Here are my own five steps to becoming successful as a writer.

  1. You are a writer because you write. So write. In whatever way suits you, write. Write lists, write a diary, write silly jokes, write letters to friends and family (remember those things, you have to put a stamp on them?). Just write.
  1. Cut the dross from your life. If something is holding you back, deal with it. Cut it out. I don’t mean necessary responsibilities, I mean the things that aren’t necessary. If life throws stress at you, find out what is really stressing you out, and deal with it. Because then you suddenly find yourself with more energy for yourself. And that gives you the energy to write.
  1. Surround yourself with beauty, comfort and the people and things that make you feel happy and positive. I sound like a self help book, but objects have strong object identities, carrying emotional signatures that significantly affect the way the we feel and act. If you love books, and want to be surrounded with them, do so. If you have an old picture from your childhood that you wish you had put on the wall, do it. If your room is full of things you don’t like, change it. Take ownership of your life and surround yourself with the things that bring that positive flow. Spend time in nature, open the windows at every opportunity, open the doors. Let the wind and rain in. Let the sun in. Let the night speak to you and sit in the darkness, drowning in the mystery. Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself.
  1. Don’t waste time and energy on people or things that don’t enhance your life. Even if you have to work in a job you don’t like in order to survive, find the smooth handle (for this reference, you must read What Katy Did). In particular, build barriers against people who bring only negativity and drama. You are in charge of your life, just as you are in charge of the lives of your characters. Take charge. Create the life you want to live. Often, it’s hard, painful and messy to begin with. You may have to break things down to rebuild. But just like good editing, it will leave you with something better.
  1. You’re a writer. Be thankful you have the time, resources and ability to do that. Be thankful for the people who enhance your life. Be grateful, every day. It sounds trite, clichéd, almost too easy, but every day is a gift. Walk in nature. Breathe in and out. Tell the people who matter that you love them. Tell them often. Smile more. It all helps. And it will change the way you write. Gratitude cancels out fear and self-doubt. Action eradicates fear.

You’re a writer.

So write.

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That Watershed Moment

That Watershed Moment

We all have them in our lives, the moment when something changes. The moment when the catalyst appears and is activated. The moment when everything shifts. Sometimes we are aware, at the time, that this is a moment on which life will pivot and twist and turn, but more often, we are not. More often, it would seem, we are unaware of the most powerful moments of change in our lives, precipitating a cascade of events which results in often radical re-visioning of self and life. This seems to be the key to a good story as well, the moment of change, but more often than not, the stories I write involve a ‘large’ change, something catastrophic or so significant that change is inevitable. But what about those subtle, quiet moments of change, not noticed at the time. We all know the device: “Little did she know . . .” but how often is that actually true, when, in the absence of the omniscient narrator, something happens which changes our life course forever without us knowing that it is one of those moments?

I can admit that I am somewhat preoccupied, even obsessed, with the concept of the Watershed moment. It seems to feature in all the stories I want to tell. It is that life event so significant that you cannot help but be change by it. All that matters then is how the characters in the story, the people whose lives are being changed, find themselves responding. This is the essence of good storytelling, is it not? The essence of plot?

Someone once told me that life is not a story, but I beg to differ. What else do we base our stories on but the real occurrences in life? Yes, we may shift the focus, emphasise some things more than other, to tell a good story, but essentially, we are only reframing what all people understand to be common experiences in life, expressed in fiction. How else would we find a connection with story, if it was too far removed from reality? Even in the most obscure fantasy, people retain certain connections with what we understand such as language, narrative shape, action, reaction, response, and personality.

And what else gives us the essence of story but the watershed moment? But how easily can we identify watershed moments? Are they always as distinctive and singular as we expect them to be?

Follow me, if you will, along this story path for a while . . .

A woman, let’s call her Jane, is married to John. Jane and John have a few issues, most of which is related to John’s behaviour in their marriage. He is possessive, jealous, and controlling. Jane hasn’t fully realised how controlling, but has become aware of her life shrinking, her friends drifting away, her activities diminishing until she is either at work or at home with John and has little life outside these two spheres. Her life has shrunk, but this is marriage, and as she moves more and more into the traditional role of wife, she tells herself that this is what she signed up for. She is a busy professional with a good job, but still she plays the role of wife at home.

Jane’s life revolves around John’s family and John’s friends, but she tells herself this is good, as she doesn’t have much family of her own, and few friends locally. Still, sometimes she feels lonely, or isolated, cut off from the people she used to spend time with. But John is the love of her life, and there is such a deep bond between them that she believes him when he says they should everything to each other.

Then she is asked to attend a work-based staff-development event on the other side of the country. It is a great honour to be asked to go to this event, and Jane is to be accompanied by her female boss for the trip which will last four days. She informs John, and John seems happy enough that she is going.

Jane attends the event, and is inspired, empowered and enriched by the experience, returning home full of energy and motivation. She is full of ideas for her job, new projects, and delighted by the experience. A few days later, she finds out her work at the weekend was nominated for an award within her company. So excited by this, she posts on her Twitter account that she has been nominated for an award. When she returns home that night, John accuses her of having an affair at the work event, because she didn’t tell him about the nomination before posting it online, which tells him that she no longer loves him enough. John becomes angry, withdrawn and distant, accusing Jane of betraying their marriage. Confused, Jane tries to cope with this false accusation and rejection, and is very unhappy, until one day, a friend reminds her that she has done nothing wrong. Seeing John’s behaviour starts the process of self-examination and self-awareness that results in Jane reclaiming her self-esteem. Eventually, that reclaiming leads to her standing up to John time and time again, and finally, after many, many months, brings about the end of their marriage. John is unhappy with a wife that won’t be bidden, Jane is unassailable in her self-belief. John rejects her, and tells her their marriage is over, and although she is heartbroken, Jane has spoken her truth throughout the experience, and although she loses everything (her home, his extended family, their shared friends) finds herself much happier alone.

And finally, after going to hell and back, content in herself and her new life, Jane finds out that she actually won that award. She is amazed, because she can see now the whole journey from the day of the nomination to the point of winning, and realises how much her life has changed. This is the full circle of the story arc, taking us to the point where we see Jane stepping off into a new future.

So what is the watershed moment in this story? Is it the work event that made Jane feel so good about herself? Is it John’s reaction to her? Or is it the moment that she forgets to put John first and foremost in her mind, and posts her good news online without fear? At what point does this character demonstrate the shift between one state and another? Is the change inherent in Jane from the moment she returns home from that work event? Is the nomination for an award the watershed moment? Is it the action of the friend, who takes on the role of the good fairy, and shows her that she has done nothing wrong? Or is it a combination of all of these factors? What is clear is that this event could have been any event, at any time, that triggered the particular set of responses in these particular characters.

I think this story speaks to the complexity, the messiness of human experiences which belies the simplicity with which we often frame narratives around singular, life-changing events. In essence, the story must be about more than simply the one event, because everything tied up in and around that event is also part of the watershed time. And it is about more than the actual event, it is about how the different people involved react to the event. This is the essence of a good story, I believe, the complexities of character in action and reaction. The narrative arc moves beyond simple cause and effect, but cause and consequence are present. It is not neat and tidy, yet it is satisfying, with a positive conclusion. And I also believe that as human beings, we frame real life events in a similar way, recognising the progress from watershed moment to some kind of satisfying conclusion, even if we only do this in retrospect. Our lives are our stories, we live them and we retell them. Perhaps it is the very nature of life to be full of watershed moments such as this, if only we have the wit to recognise them. Just like our characters, all that matters is how we respond.

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