Relationships and the Creative Practitioner

I’ve been working through Benjamin Hardy‘s 30 Behaviours to Make You Unstoppable in 2019 in the hope it will help me find a way to achieve my life goals. I don’t want to be a millionaire or anything, I’d just like to make enough to travel a little, buy the odd book, and replace my fraying knickers; be as good a wife as D is a husband; and, when the time comes, leave the world in a slightly better state than I entered it. This week I look at behaviours 10 and 11, which are almost identical.

10. Deepen Your Relationship With Your Parents

“The parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind.”Bessel van der Kolk

In the important book, The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel van der Kolk M.D. explains that suppressed emotions and trauma lead people to unhealthy and addictive cycles.

One of the most fundamental components of making a positive change in your life is developing a healthy relationship with your parents — whether they are alive or not.

Your relationship with your parents is a powerful indicator of your emotional well-being as a person. It doesn’t matter how “successful” you appear on the outside, if you don’t have this key relationship established, then chances are you are an emotional wreck.

Oftentimes, people have “toxic” or unhealthy parents. These parents should be viewed and treated with love and forgiveness, not spite and disdain. As you improve your own life and deepen the relationship with your parents, you often give them permission to expand and evolve themselves.

They need you just as much as you need them.

Henry Moore: Mother and Child

I don’t really have much to say about my relationship with my parents. They are both dead. My mother died in 2006, she was 79, and had been very ill for a long time. It’s safe to say that she was a very conflicted woman: I have memories of her dragging me round a feminist march one weekend, and an anti-abortion one the next. I’m not kidding. She fought her employers to allow women to wear trousers, and won, but let my brother off household chores because he was a boy. We came to blows more than once as I was growing up, and I felt guilty till well into my forties for slapping her back when I was sixteen, but by the time she died we had long been friends.

As for my father, he died when I was thirteen. I was really pissed off with him for leaving us, and for years I dreamt he was still alive (my mother was lying, she’d kicked him out!) and one day I’d meet him in a café on the Brompton Road and we’d discuss philosophy. Then on the evening of the day my mother died I learnt that my father had been a different dad to my wee brother. Rather than the super-rational man I turned to to help in the battle against my mother’s over-constraining Catholicism, he’d been so thuggish that, when he grew up and fell in love, my brother couldn’t bring himself to have his own kids for fear fatherhood would bring out the brute in him too. He couldn’t bear the thought he might hurt his kids as dad had hurt him. As you can imagine that took a bit of dealing with: I was furious with him (my father) for hurting my brother, and for deceiving me. And I was even more furious with myself for not seeing this was going on, and protecting my brother. What kind of sister doesn’t see that her wee brother is being bullied? I’m not sure I can say I’ve forgiven my father for that, but I know how complex each person is, and that it’s very difficult to break out of the mould you were cast in. I don’t forgive him for hurting my brother, but I forgive him for not having had the emotional resources necessary not to.

I’m not sure I could ever have described my parents as toxic, that seems a bit strong, but unhealthy? Somewhat. And although I probably did think of them both with a modicum of disdain (never spite) in my younger years, I reckon my relationship with them has been pretty healthy for sometime. I tend to think of them as victims of their own circumstances, and no one can be blamed for that. Maybe that’s why I’m not ‘an emotional wreck.’ That ‘key relationship’ is, for me, about as good as it can be.

Montmartre, Paris, 1948. Photo: Édouard Boubat.

11. Develop Other “Protection” Relationships

In a recent interview, Kobe Bryant told the story of his first year playing basketball at age 11. He scored zero points. He was terrible.

After that season, his dad looked him in the eyes and said, “I don’t care if you scored 60 points or 0 points. I will love you no matter what.”

That was exactly what Kobe needed to hear. He knew that regardless of his behavior — he was safe. His father would love him.

This protection gave Kobe permission to fail. It gave him permission to take risks. The buffer of his father’s love allowed Kobe to step outside of his comfort zone — to the only place high performance can exist.

If you don’t feel protected in your relationships, it can be hard to push your own boundaries. It can be hard to be free because you’re actually a slave to the relationship. This is living in an unhealthy dependent state where everything you do is based on trying to please other people.

But when you feel loved and protected regardless of outcomes, then you can rise to independence and attempt things that will likely fail, often.

The next season, Kobe began failing intensely and as a result, he began learning intensely. He left his comfort zone behind and began playing in the realms of creativity and imagination — where no limits were placed upon him.

All he had to do was step beyond the boundaries of who he had been in the past, and step into the new role and identity emblazoned in his own imagination and fortified by his father’s love.

He embraced the unknown over and over because he was willing to be free — free to see what was possible, to fail, to explore, to create. Free to become legendary.

Do you have powerful protection relationships in your life?

Do you feel stabilized and safe?

Do you have a firm foundation that allows you the flexibility to jump way outside of your comfort zone, and yet be safe?

Although I find it slightly irritating that Hardy chose to use a parent-child relationship as his example here, I can’t tell you how validating this is. For thirty years I was in a relationship that was so destabilizing that, for the final five or six years, I was barely able to leave the house, let alone push a boundary. My husband had a way of uttering encouraging words in a manner (tone of voice, body language) that suggested I would always be a failure. Yes, I was ‘stunning’ and ‘incredibly intelligent,’ but ‘what do you say to someone with a philosophy degree…? “Big Mac and fries, please” ha ha ha.’ I kept trying to do interesting things, but I’d always lose momentum. I did get two degrees while we were married, and even won an award for academic excellence, but he managed to make my achievements sound paltry, laughable even, and I couldn’t see what to do with them once I’d got them.

But I don’t think I’d have got those degrees and awards in a happy marriage. It was trying to please him, that made me enrol at university. I was so afraid he’d get bored with my stupidity, and leave, I decided I had to try and do something about it. And now here I am, with a bunch of skills I’m putting to good use, and a dream husband. So, although that marriage was often very difficult, and I was pretty sad and lonely for most of it, I’m grateful to my ex for bringing out the best in me.

And now I’m lucky enough to have one of those ‘protection relationships’ Hardy talks about, too. And he’s right, it does allow me to take risks, push boundaries, be creative. I’ve begun to ‘step out of my comfort zone’ almost daily. Even writing this – slightly too personal stuff on a blog that could be read by anyone – would have been impossibly excruciating in my last relationship. My thinking now is that it may help another creative to think their way past some obstacle, and break free. And that’s only possible now I feel ‘safe’ and loved for myself rather than as an accessory. Even though Dave is the kind of man who doesn’t believe in letting the world know his personal difficulties he doesn’t mock me for being different to him, in fact he delights in my idiosyncrasies. I feel I could try anything and he would support me. We’ve been together seven years, and not having to constantly defend myself has taken quite some getting used to, but I’m finally beginning to feel empowered. I can now push myself. Take risks. I’m no longer afraid of failing, of looking like an idiot and giving the person in my life ammunition against me.

It remains to be seen if any of this translates to my achieving my life goals, but it certainly feels possible. I wouldn’t have dared have life goals when married to my ex.

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Header image: Chekhov and His Wife, Olga L. Knipper.

Literature Ambassador: 2019 Writer Opps #8

Writer Opps Wednesday is back, and pleased to share two development opportunities in Dumfries and Galloway, and three magazines looking for your writing to publish:

Writers’ Gathering

Which is run by Wigtown Festival Company. This is what they say:

The Writers’ Gathering takes place on Saturday 11th May 2019, 9:30-16:30, in The Print Room, Wigtown. An annual day conference for writers in Dumfries & Galloway.

The Writers’ Gathering is Wigtown Festival Company’s annual day conference for writers in Dumfries & Galloway, led by a mix of successful writers and leading industry professionals to deliver a balance of inspirational and skills-specific sessions, including workshops, seminars and one-to-ones. This year’s speakers include Gerda Stevenson (poet, actress and playwright), Claire Wingfield (literary consultant), Allan Guthrie (literary agent and crime fiction author and editor), and Lucy Ribchester (historical novelist and short story writer).

Location: Dumfries and Galloway, East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, South Ayrshire

For further information, please contact isla@wigtownbookfestival.com (isla@wigtownbookfestival.com), or call 01988 402036 , or visit http://www.wigtownbookfestival.com/our-projects/writers-gathering-d-g

As one of Wigtown Festival Company’s three Literature Ambassadors I had a little input into this and, I have to say, it’s going to be a blinder. I am planning to be there, and it would be great to see you there too.

If you struggle with realizing the setting in your writing this could be for you. Run by dedicated, hands on, local writers who know what they’re talking about, it should be well worth the time (and money) spent for anyone who’s serious about the craft.

Details- WANT TO WRITE but can’t find the time – or a quiet place?

– Enjoy MEETING OTHER WRITERS with a range of interests and abilities?

– Would you benefit from a ONE-TO-ONE discussion with an experienced creative writer/tutor?

This March, join us at Shambellie House and learn about instilling a sense of place into your creative writing.

Over the course of two Saturdays, group workshops will focus on the creation of atmosphere, the link between setting and characters, and how to avoid clichés and transform stereotypes. There will be time for individual reflection, exploration of the house and grounds, and personal writing.

An allocated one-to-one session* will give you the opportunity to discuss any issues or challenges you are facing in your writing, with the option to bring along a short extract of work for more focused critique.

The second weekend will culminate with the opportunity to share your new/edited writing with the group.

👉 Tickets are ONLY £55 and include attendance on BOTH Saturdays! This also includes tea/coffee and your one-to-one session, as well as group workshops and individual writing time. (Booking fee/p&p costs apply.) Book now via TicketSource link!

Go here for more details and to book.

Image from Hally’s

Now for the zines, first up, an online magazine with an interesting concept:

Five on the Fifth

Who publishes five short pieces of writing on the fifth of every month. They’ve been going since 2015, accept submissions all year round, and respond within a month. 

Submission Guidelines

Five on the Fifth publishes 5 short stories on the fifth of each month. We accept flash fiction, general fiction, non-fiction, horror, and science fiction/fantasy.  The maximum word count for submissions is 5,000 words. 

We now receive hundreds of submissions each month. Five on the Fifth is growing, and we (the editors) are very excited about it. Publication in Five on the Fifth is becoming more competitive each issue. Ensure that your story is free of typos and grammatical errors. Your submission should be in proper manuscript format. Cover letters should be concise and professional. Biographical statements should be a few sentences at most. Highlight your recent accomplishments. 

A note on what we don’t want: We do not publish novels. We do not publish poetry. We do not publish fan fiction. We do not publish experimental pieces. We do not publish erotica, though there can be erotic and/or graphic elements in your fiction, so long as it is for the purpose of telling a great story. 

Five on the Fifth is now exclusively accepting submissions through its submission manager, Submittable. Please read the full submission guidelines and submit your work by visiting Five on the Fifth’s Submittable page

Then we have:

B CUBED PRESS

Who are looking for stories on the theme of

ALTERNATIVE APOCALYPSES

About which they say:

Will close on April 15, 2019.

Stories of endings, beginnings, and change. As always, a political bent doesn’t hurt but not required. The apocalypse can be big or small, personal or world shattering. Humor is always good. Satire is excellent.

We will include some good poetry and thoughtful essays if you have them.  For stories we’re looking for 500 to 5000 words.

We anticipate releasing at World Con in Dublin.

Edited by Debora Godfrey and Bob Brown

For more details visit their website.

Lastly the ever joyous:

Are always looking for submissions of poetry, flash fiction, word & image and reviews. Go to their submissions page for all the details. 

And that’s it for this week, Writer Opps Wednesday hopes at least one will appeal to you, and that you have much luck. See you next week for more opportunities of a literary bent.

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Header image: Greige Design.

Story-a-Week #9: Memoir and Monsters

For last Tuesday’s Café Stories I put together a lesson that combined memoir writing and plot types. There are umpteen theories on the range of narrative structures, but to keep it simple I stuck to the one that holds there are only 7 Basic Plots, and that all creative texts – films; novels; short stories; ballads… – fit in to at least one. They are:

1. Overcoming The Monster – you have a demon to battle. This doesn’t have to be a dragon or an archetypal villain, but can be a horrible boss, a narcissistic mother, an addiction… Indeed, you yourself can be the monster you overcome.

2. Rebirth – stories of renewal, such as It’s a Wonderful Life.

3. The Quest – where the hero goes on a mission from point A to point B (or Z!), this can be anything from saving the planet to searching for your granny’s lost gardening gloves to getting fit enough to compete in a cross country egg and spoon race.

4. Journey and Return – the hero sets off on a journey, often, but not always, reluctantly, and eventually returns a changed – stronger, more flexible, better – person. This doesn’t have to be a long journey, or even a physical one.

5. Rags to Riches – once you had little now you have enough. Again this doesn’t have to be the boringly obvious grew up poor now you have a three car garage. It could be about knowledge: once you knew nothing of town planning, now you’ve been awarded Town Planner of the year; or relationships: you move to a new town, you know no one, you make new friends…

6. Tragedy – you crash your mother’s beloved convertible…

7. Comedy – you crash your mother’s beloved convertible into a mobile cheese van, and her Orla Kiely upholstered seats get swamped with Stinking Bishop. It is 32°c.

But before I told them any of this we talked about the difference between memoir and autobiography. Which is that while autobiography is about a whole life, memoir focuses on one slice of the pie of that life. You choose one event, incident, interest, relationship… that is in some way important to you. It doesn’t have to be hugely dramatic like a death or big loss, but it does have to be something that you feel shaped you in some way. You could have lost a shoe and, in the process of looking for it, found something you didn’t know you needed, something about yourself, someone close to you, or even about humanity.

Here are three examples of memoir writing:

I have a history of making decisions very quickly about men. I have always fallen in love fast and without measuring risks. I have a tendency not only to see the best in everyone, but to assume that everyone is emotionally capable of reaching his highest potential. I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness. Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism.

(Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert)

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

(A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway)

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

(Walden by Henry David Thoreau

After a brief chat about what made these interesting I gave them an exercise:

Beijing, China: The Labyrinth – an art installation by Michelangelo Pistoletto comprising 2,100 metres of cardboard – at Galleria Continua
Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Take five minutes to brainstorm as many significant events from your own life as you can. For example: the birth of my oldest child; the time we went to Brighton; the book that changed my reading habits; when my best friend at school didn’t return after the summer holidays; the day I lost my left shoe…

We all tell stories about things that happen to us, and sometimes we carry stories inside us that we don’t tell, or tell to only a very few people, because they’re too complicated, or too sad, or too difficult to tell in a few minutes. So just jot down anything that comes to mind, don’t try too hard, just let them come. 

We then shared our lists and had a wee chat about them, before I took them through the list of basic plots and said a bit about those (see above).  I asked them to pick one of their story possibilities and we talked about which of the basic plots they might fit into. Here’s my list:

The time I came home after being out in nothing but a bikini and my mother went bonkers

The time the very popular new girl in school defended me against a group of boys calling me WOG (‘does that mean wonderful original girl?)

The time I got an email from my husband’s mistress

The time I went to ‘women’s returner’ classes and found out I wasn’t as stupid as I’d been led to believe

The time my mother turned into a film star as she was handed a cup of coffee at aunt Elsa’s.

I chose the last one. It seemed easiest, especially as I’m currently writing an essay about my relationship with coffee that includes this episode, so it’s been on my mind anyway. But I didn’t actually write it then as a deadline was looming,* so while my students created I polished and emailed out another project.

I dashed this off when I had a moment later in the week. 

Myrna Loy via this place.

I was eight years old the day my mother turned into a movie star.

Sleep shadowed in the kitchen of aunts Elsa and Marge – sisters rendered single by the war – I watched my father pour coffee into a tall mug from a dyspnoeic pot. One sugar, plop! Two sugars, plop! A lick of milk. He stirred until every grain had dissolved and turned to the window, his face bright as a chocolate moon.

Before the French windows, open to a small filigree-railed balcony and the hum of London, my mother stretched out her arm to receive his offering. She leaned back on her stool, raised the cup to her lips, sipped, closed her eyes, and sighed. Wreathed in back-lit smoke from the smouldering cigarette she held like a note, dressed in visiting clothes, framed by breeze-puffed curtains, my mother atomised and reformed like a perfume-hologram of Myrna Loy.

Obviously it needs a bit more thought, but perhaps you can help me by suggesting which basic plot fits it best, and why. I can then construct the story based on your ideas. How’s that for collaboration? 


*Those tender evaluations I mentioned on Friday.

Header image from guess where!

On Becoming Unstoppable #4

Onto the ninth of Benjamin Hardy’s Thirty Behaviours to Make [Me] Unstoppable: 

Create More Peake Experiences

He begins with a quote: 

“Peak experiences as rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.”Abraham Maslow

and, thankfully, goes on to say:

‘Peak experiences, by nature, are novel and new. They involve experiencing or seeing the world in a new way.

In order for you to have a peak experience, you need to be open to new experiences. You need to be humble

Peak experiences are more likely to happen outside of your comfort zone. They generally involve “experiential” learning.’

Adds:

‘Peak experiences don’t need to be rare. They are only as rare as your courage is exercised. If you begin being courageous daily, you’ll start having more peak experiences.

As you have more peak experiences, your emotional wellbeing will increase, and thus, your imagination and ability to direct and create your future will expand.’

And:

‘Put simply, you can and must create experiences that change your identity. As your identity changes, your future will change. Einstein wisely said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” Change can only happen by imagining a different world, and then courageously seeking new and expansive experiences. Change happens as you learn and expand your world.’

The glowing remains of a dying, Sun-like star known as the Ant Nebula, via BuzzFeed.

So, my understanding is that peak experiences are rare, but don’t need to be. They are novel to the person experiencing them, happen outside your comfort zone, and expand your world. And by experiencing them you will grow and change. 

According to this analysis I have, in the last week, had three peak experiences. Though two of them are unlikely to be considered thus by most people. The first was that I helped organise a community engagement event. This included many meetings (no longer novel for me); making a lot of chocolate based treats (also not particularly novel, but becoming more so now I’ve married a diabetic); getting up at seven in the morning (exceedingly novel); and manning a stall on the Community Nature Reserve (weird and novel). There was also a great deal of last minute printing and putting things in plastic folders. The second was reading and evaluating tenders from consultants for the redevelopment of our local High Street. Both were part of my role as a community councillor.

As those are pretty boring things to write about, let alone read about, I won’t bore you with the details. It’s enough, I hope, to say I experienced them, and they were, on the whole, difficult because they were not only fairly novel, they also involved lots of other people. These days I prefer to work alone and please myself. Out of my comfort zone barely begins to describe.

The third experience was more the kind of thing I’d think of as ‘peak.’ 

Seeing a giant octopus while deep sea diving; trekking in the Andes; drinking yak blood cocktails in a yurt with the Himalayas looming above. These are the kind of things I tend to think of as mystical, magical, and mind expanding. But also communing with art. 

Anna Hepler, via…

On Saturday evening, having been woken at seven in order to stand in a draughty town hall explaining the difference between the song of blackbirds and song thrushes, and give my view on nesting boxes, I was so tired I’d have crawled into bed straight after supper. But our local theatre was showing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Umpteen friends had told me it was marvellous, and I’d seen the trailer. So I washed up, put on a clean shirt, and wandered up the road with Dave to join a group of pals for a pre movie Prosecco and the film. I wasn’t sure I’d stay awake beyond the credits. But, boy, did I.

I was hooked from the start. The music was perfect, as were the casting and the juxtapositions – the shabby town contrasted with the gorgeous scenery for example, but also those within and between the characters. But the thing I liked best about it was the timing, it was exquisite. There wasn’t a word spoken, a gesture, a camera shot, or anything else that didn’t come at exactly the right nano-second to work to make the whole thing hang together like a galaxy. The peak in the experience of watching this film was the almost unbearable precision: it was a tense and illuminating event.* The only other English language film I can think of whose gravity is so finely tuned is The Station Agent. I love the Coen brothers and their work, but this topped even them. Watching it was like eating a nutritionally balanced, yet delicious breakfast in a room papered with Paul Klee’s watercolours. I came out of the theatre more alive than I’ve felt in months, and definitely saw the world in a new way. If you haven’t seen it you must.

Paul Klee: Cubic Construction via the Tate.

So that’s behaviour nine of Hardy’s thirty. I learnt a lot from all three of the experiences I put myself through: how to pull off an event as part of a disparate team, and, I think crucially, settle for good enough; how to put my language and text analysis skills to use evaluating tenders for something I really don’t know much about; and how precision in art makes all the difference.

Behaviours ten and eleven are about relationships, so I’ll look at them in unison next week.


*I should probably say that at the time of watching the film I wasn’t aware of any of this, I didn’t sit watching and thinking ‘gosh that’s good use of timing.’ It’s only because I came out feeling awe struck that I have subsequently attempted to look at why.

Header image of paddy fields in Bhutan from Pinterest.

Literature Ambassador: 2019 Reader Opps

Writer Opps Wednesday has been abducted by aliens…

Header image: Carl Jung Psychology Site

Story-a-Week #8: The Art of Losing

Another hard won story which started in the Café Stories workshop on Tuesday. We did the art of writing about place. The setting for a story is more than merely a backdrop for the action, when done right it can tell your reader a great deal about your character, and help move the action on. So it’s important to fully render the arena in which your narrative takes place. To this end I gave participants three examples of evocative descriptions of locations in fiction: Dickens’s Hard Times; Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, and Laurie Lee’s description of the village he grew up in from I Can’t stay Long. I let them read the pieces before we discussed how the use of the five senses brought them to life, how they helped us experience the places they described. Then I gave them an exercise.

We had a brief discussion about abstract nouns – beauty; love; happiness; fear… – before I asked them to pick one and describe it using the five senses to make it concrete, by filling in the gaps of: ‘the smell of [chosen abstract noun] is’; ‘the taste of [chosen abstract noun]is’, ‘the sound of [abstract noun]is’, etc. I gave them ten minutes to do this. As always I did the exercise too, and chose beauty. This is one of my pet peeves. So often in fiction a writer says someone or something is beautiful (incredibly beautiful, stunningly beautiful…) without saying how. My idea of beauty is unlikely to be the same as that of a twenty year old man, so I need a writer to give me something to latch on to so I can see/hear/taste… what s/he means.

This is what I managed to come up with, I’m not saying they are prime examples, but they should give some idea of what I’m banging on about.

The smell of beauty is violet creams on a silver dish.

The taste of beauty is Amalfi lemons on a summer day. 

The sound of beauty is an espresso machine in full flow.

The feel of beauty is a hot bath after a rain soaked coast walk

The look of beauty is your wellies on our worn out mat. 

Once the time was up we all read out what we’d written and had a brief chat about that. After which it was time to begin the construction of a story. I asked them each to imagine a place and use (some of) the five senses to bring that place to life. I gave them fifteen minutes for this, after which they were given another twenty minutes to imagine someone in that place with a reason to be there. Homework was to complete the story, for me as well as my students.

I got so far then found myself stuck. I was quite happy with what I’d written, but I knew the narrative was lacking in some way. Couldn’t work out how, though. Until browsing the Louisiana Channel in an idle moment I stumbled on a short film of interviews with writers about how they approach the blank page. David Mitchell said he was rarely faced with a blank page but if he ever found himself struggling with where to go in a story he interrogated his character, asked her what she wanted, and wrote that. So that’s what I did, I asked my character what she wanted, jotted it down, and, voila! I was able to finish the story. After that it was just a matter of polishing and clarifying which, with such a short story can be really difficult, and it wasn’t until I gave Lucas a voice, and played around with that for a while, that I got what I wanted. 

Image from Fractal Enlightenment

The Art of Losing

A man with a voice like a road drill lectures a small woman in the corner. A fuzz of pop music emanates from a too close speaker. Someone apparently tries to swat a fly in a saucer with his coffee cup. Voices rise and fall like tin piano keys played by a teenage jazz fan. From the kitchen a hint of yesterday’s fish-pie special escapes at each flap of the door to mingle with the scent of today’s scones. Outside the main window the sky lours as if drawn by an amateur charcoal artist, while beyond the side window, beside which she takes a seat, the sun burns. She wonders which will win, the brooding clouds or the sanguine sun? Will she have to hunt for her umbrella, or her sunglasses, on leaving? No matter, she thinks, she is prepared. 
When the waiter comes for her order – skinny Cappuccino, no chocolate; blueberry crumble, no cream – she shivers in that ‘someone just walked over my grave’ way. Biscuit crumb freckles and hair like fine black grass, he is a future version of Lucas. Lucas, the kid who bid her close her eyes one summer morning beside a Cambridgeshire pond, put a toad in her hand and when she flinched said, ‘don’t worry, he’s very friendly,’ with such a smile in his dark eyes she almost melted. Gorgeous, gentle, born naturalist Lucas. She wonders what their relationship is now: would it be right to call him her ex-nephew?

Again, it’s not perfect, and I’ll probably continue to work on it on and off for some time. But that’s the way with writing, once you’ve got the idea down you have to keep working on it till it shines.

Header image: Saul Leiter.

On Becoming Unstoppable #3

After last week’s meltdown I feel I’m back on the sea-plane of unstoppability with #8 of Benjamin Hardy’s thirty behaviours: 

Become More Playful and Imaginative

By Alejandra, aka Antonio Gutiérrez Pereira on Flickr.

Hardy begins with this quote from Einstein :

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

and continues by saying life ‘is meant to be a joy, not a grind.’ While the philosophy graduate in me could easily argue that life isn’t meant to be anything at all, life just is, I certainly agree that now we have consciousness and are, thus, self directing, it would be crackers to settle for grind when joy is possible. But how does this lead to being unstoppable? Actually, what is it to be unstoppable?

I launched myself into this particular abyss two weeks ago without stopping (ho ho) to examine or define the term, so I think I should do that now. My dictionary defines it as being impossible to stop, which doesn’t really help much. Impossible to stop at what, I’m not thinking of doing a Forrest Gump? Perhaps it would be better to try and ascertain what Hardy means by being unstoppable. I haven’t thoroughly read all of his thirty behaviours, though having read the first ten or so, and skimmed the rest, I’m of the impression he means unstoppable at achieving one’s dreams or goals. That is, if you make these behaviours part of your life your goals will follow.

As I said in the first post on this subject my goals are to earn a living from my writing; to be the best possible wife to D, and to contribute to world eudaimonia. So, back to the question: how will becoming more playful and imaginative help me achieve them?

Ah, but this leads to more questions: what is it to be playful; what is it to be imaginative? To play, according to my dictionary, is ‘to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.’ So it’s to do something for the fun of it, without worrying about outcomes. Yes? 

Image from Pinterest.

I don’t think I could do more of this, my life really is predicated on doing things for enjoyment. Even the writing workshops I run are more fun than work, that they add a few coffers to my pot is almost a bonus.

Seven years ago I moved into the tiny house of a poor man ten years older than me. Last June I married him. Retired and living on the scant pension of someone who dedicated his working life to charitable concerns rather than climbing a career ladder, he will never be able to buy me a cottage in Perpignan or an Edmund de Waal pot. But waking up with him beside me is like having ice-cream for breakfast. He is my own private Perpignan. I married him for the joy of being with him.

Recently I’ve been watching a lot of lectures (Royal Institute, mostly) on quantum mechanics. Everything the lecturer says makes sense while I’m watching, but within minutes of the end I forget it all. I’ve probably watched about five or six by now, but still know nothing about quantum entanglement or super symmetry. It’s unlikely I’ll ever understand the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, or wormholes that grow as you pass through them so you can never get to the end, and I have no desire to become a particle physicist. Yet I still, in idle moments, look for more lectures to imbibe. I do so for the fun of it. I love the language – up quarks and down quarks, charm quarks, bottom quarks, leptons and sparticles – and I love the look of the equations written in chalk on a blackboard, even though they make no sense to me. I stumbled on the first lecture while attempting to learn something about space for a story. The story has long since been dumped, yet I return again and again to the lectures, looking for ever more to watch. The vague hope for a particular outcome has been usurped by the desire to wallow in this unintelligible language, and Kafkaesque imagery. Some may find it difficult to see how watching a lecture on Quantum non-locality could possibly be play, but to me having Philip Ball on my lap – a toy dog in one hand, a toy rabbit in the other – is akin to being a child again, lying tucked up in bed while my mother reads One Thousand and One Arabian Nights to my sisters, my brother, and me.

I’ll return to Hardy to help answer the question of what it is to be imaginative. He says: ‘Having imagination means you’re mentally and emotionally flexible,’ that you can ‘see beyond what is currently in front of you.’ And he expands thus: ‘Being imaginative about your future means you believe you can do and be things that others can’t see.’ I’ll attempt to unpack this a bit: to be imaginative about my future means I believe, a) I can earn a living from my writing, even though the figures – which are what others will see – show that’s pretty rare; b) I can be the best possible wife to D, regardless of the divorce rate and, c) I can contribute to world eudaimonia, which most people would view as being utopian, a term rarely used as a compliment. It also means I can see myself doing and being these things.* 

He’s saying that in order to believe your goals are possible you have to be able to imagine what your life will look/feel/smell/taste/sound like when you reach them. And you certainly need to be able to imagine yourself in the process of achieving them. Step by step. It’s about creating new solutions to old problems. Testing. Tasting. Trying. And thinking of every setback as a chance to learn. He mentions Carol Dweck, and says she has produced some of the most important research in psychology over the past fifty years. So I googled her.

Her area of expertise is learning. She’s my new favourite person. Basically, she teaches how to teach based on the concept of ‘not yet.’ By which I mean, she exhorts educators, parents, and anyone who’s interested in learning and teaching to focus not on grades, conventional notions of intelligence, and the now. But to understand that learning is a process. If a kid doesn’t get the grades s/he, or more likely her/his parents, want, s/he should be praised for trying and told that by trying s/he is increasing her/his brain’s capacity. We should look on learning as a challenge, a problem to be solved by doing and making mistakes. We are all capable of making new neural connections and, thus, increasing our level of intelligence. This concept she calls a ‘growth mindset.’ If we have a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset – whereby we believe we have a fixed level of intelligence, so are either born clever or not so much – we look on failing as an opportunity to do better next time, an opportunity to solve the problem and grow. This takes imagination: a mind that’s open and active. But it starts with a simple belief.

I’m pretty sure no one will ever invite me to Cern to help analyse data from the LHC, but I’m equally sure that by watching lectures about quantum physics I will absorb the language. As a writer language, and how it’s used, is my thing. I love it. Maybe one day, long after I’ve moved on from physics to, say, geology, while staying in a bothy on Ulva, I’ll watch D going off for a day’s fishing, open my laptop and write a story about a sparticle and a neutrino dancing on an event horizon; I can already imagine it being accepted by the New Yorker!


*I’m still working on this part.

Header image also from Pinterest.

Literature Ambassador: 2019 Writer Opps #7

Writer Opps Wednesday is thrilled to deliver to your very own eyes a gender-bending Feminist publisher who accepts unsolicited manuscripts; an online lit mag, with an unconventional view of categorization, calling for submissions; a link to five more magazines in need of poems and stories to fill their pages; and an opportunity for creative practitioners to run workshops for the Edinburgh International Festival.

aunt lute

The Aunt Lute Foundation is a multicultural women’s press. The priority of our staff is to publish work by women, both transgender and cisgender, not traditionally served by mainstream publishers, particularly works by women of color. Our editing process is necessarily sensitive to the perspectives/voices/truths of the women with whom we work.

What we’re looking for:

We seek manuscripts, both fiction and nonfiction, by women from a variety of cultures, ethnic backgrounds and subcultures; women who are self-aware and who, in the face of all contradictory evidence, are still hopeful that the world can reserve a place of respect for each woman in it. We seek work that explores the specificities of the worlds from which we come and examines the intersections of the borders that we all inhabit.

We do not accept:

Currently, we only accept poetry if it is submitted as part of a larger body of work or an edited anthology.

We generally do not consider, given our particular readership, works about therapy or self-help.

For more details and how to submit go to aunt lute.

Storyscape Literary Journal

WHAT’S YOUR STORY?
We’re so excited you want to submit to Storyscape. The premise of the journal is to expand the notion of what stories are while shaking up the labels we use to define them.
Rather than categorize by type of story (we accept all types of stories), the three sections of the journal are Truth, Untruth, and We Don’t Know and They Won’t Tell Us. Because we believe stories are lurking everywhere, we are actively looking for unique modes of storytelling that fall outside conventional boundaries while still maintaining the core essence of “story.” Then again, we’re also open to a traditional story that’s simply very well told.
We get excited about genre-bending stories of all genres, but also all storytelling methods, i.e., written, audio, visual, found, overheard, and anything else you can think of. If you were wondering if you should submit a photograph of the poem you scrawled in sharpie ink on top of a ripped up advertisement in the subway, the answer is probably yes. Or, you could just send us the poem you wrote. Get it?
A TIP: things that are funny makes us laugh
BUT ALSO: things that are sad make us cry.
We read submissions on a rolling basis throughout the year, though our reading gets slower right around our publication times. We publish twice per year: roughly in the fall and spring.

Go over to Storyscape for all the details and submission guidelines.

If neither of those seem suitable for you, or you merely want to see even more opportunities, I suggest you visit the ever marvellous Authors Publish where you’ll find five more journals who would love to read your work. They may even publish it and, you know, they can only do that if you send it to them.

Nicked from Pinterest

Freelance Artists, Practitioners and Workshop Leaders

Are you a creative practitioner who relies on teaching to make a buck? If so this may well be just what you need: the Edinburgh International Festival is actively seeking creatives with experience of leading workshops. Here’s what they say:

The Edinburgh International Festival Learning & Engagement team is looking to expand its portfolio of freelance artists, practitioners and workshop leaders.  Our Learning & Engagement programme runs year-round, and during the festival, working across artform with workshops and projects created for and with children, young people, communities and to invest in talent development.  
We are looking to hear from inspiring and innovative artists.  We are keen to connect with artists from ALL artforms, experienced in, and passionate about sharing and applying their practice in workshops, and on longer term bespoke engagement projects.  It is essential to have previous experience working with young people and or community groups in an arts education context, and to bring best practice to workshops and preparation.
Our work is inspired by the Edinburgh International Festival values and programme, and we annually present a world leading programme of Opera, Dance, Classical Music, Contemporary Music and Theatre.

And here’s a link to the page on their site which explains how to apply.


Tune in next Wednesday for more Writer Opps Wednesday finds.


Header image: Samuel Beckett’s notebook, from the wonderful Brain Pickings.

Story-A-Week #7: On a Dig

I’m a day late with this post for a stew of reasons, the culmination of which being I couldn’t get any purchase on this week’s story until I woke on Monday morning and realised what it was about. Then had to rewrite it. Stephen King is right, I think, writing is akin to excavation. The story exists, I’ve managed to scratch some of it out of the earth, and now need to keep brushing the soil off it. That’s the only way it will emerge as a human artefact. 

Last Tuesday, at Café Stories, we looked at hooks. Those compelling opening lines that invite readers into a story. I gave participants a handful of my favourite examples, and asked them to choose one each so we could discuss what made them so irresistible. We all agreed that a captivating hook offered a number of possibilities, made you ask questions, and felt familiar in some way.

For example, Rosemary’s chosen line: ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,’* was instantly recognisable – we’ve all had such plans thwarted – and made us ask why. Was it the weather; an unexpected arrival; had she hurt herself; had somebody died; had the sole come off her walking boots? We could think of dozens of reasons, and the only way to find out which, if any of them, it is, is to read on. The genius of those ten short words is that there’s nothing overtly emotional in any of them, but together they make you care. We had a lively discussion.

Then I gave them ten minutes to compose some of their own. I did it too, we all read ours out and talked a bit about the ones we liked best, and how they operated, before I set them to pick one and develop it into a story. Homework was to finish that story and email it to me by Sunday evening so I have time to read and add useful annotations before the next workshop. Thus I have a little pile in my inbox waiting for attention. And my own story to finish.

The lines I came up with during the session are:

1) Everything was fine until the chicken died.

2) When the phone rings in this house, regardless of the time of day, she stares at it counting the rings, picking up only when it’s in danger of ringing out. A game of telephone roulette she doesn’t even realise she’s playing.

3) Agnes Carter glides to the shed in which she keeps her supplies, her flip-flops snapping at her heels.

4) The cheese sandwich curled in the last of the sun.

I’m sure you’ll agree none of them are particularly inviting, but I was determined to make something of one of them, which could be why I’ve struggled so much. Usually when I write, I start with a vision, like a fuzzy film playing in my head. There’s a character and a situation that I find myself drawn to question. That questioning clarifies the vision and becomes the story. It’s all rather organic. The vision emerges like the tiny shoot of a self seeded native plant that had only been waiting for the right conditions; the questions, like water and sunlight, bring it to life. But working from a dashed off line was more like trying to grow Morning Glory on a west facing wall. 

I chose number four for no particular reason, and started off well enough, but stalled after about two hundred words. Then other things took over, and I didn’t look at it again till Friday, when I forced a few more lines. Late Sunday afternoon, between a volunteer session on the hill, and drinks at friends, I stared at it for some time and, finally, added a scant resolution to the single scrappy scene I’d managed, and gave it a rather abrupt ending. 

Nibbling on radishes and sipping wine at B & R’s I felt sure I’d made a terrible mistake in choosing a cheese sandwich to write about, but chalked it up to experience, and let it go. Then Monday morning happened, and I spent most of the day on it, steadfastly ignoring the outside world. As I said, it still needs to be cleaned up before it shows its worth, or lack thereof, but it seems to me to be more than a clod of dry mud.

Pear Tree in Blossom – Pyotr Konchalovsky, 1927

Old Marbury

A cheese sandwich curls in the bold noon sun, no crumbs on the table, a pickle stained knife in the sink the only sign it hadn’t spontaneously materialized. A pair of battered leather sandals beside a back door wide open to the garden, where dry sheets bake on a line made of fishing wire – ‘you could land a sixty pound pike with that, it won’t even notice your smalls.’ Old Marbury had said, that smile playing in the corner of his mouth like a badly tuned tv, when she balked at his offer to replace her snapped nylon fibre. 
Only she knows how awkward it is to get the pegs to stick. She’s had to resort to wadding, which means hanging takes three times as long. She will return to fibre once old Marbury dies she tells herself, and feels guilty. Which is why when she heard the cry she ran, throwing the knife into the sink on her way out the door, not stopping for footwear, and called: ‘Ol… Mar… Mis…’ She rounded the fence and saw him on the concrete slabs with which he’d replaced his lawn, for ease of maintenance, oblivious to her pleas to retain a pear tree so gnarled she fancied it inspiration for the arabesques of an imagined local Illuminated Manuscript, and gasped. As twisted as the branch Billy McKechnie gave her the day she forced herself to watch him wield his chainsaw, as pale as the fruit the tree will no longer bear, a similar blush of carmine blooming on the bulge of his forehead, his left hand flapping like a windsock in a gale. Noise buds from his half-closed mouth, but doesn’t appear to be an attempt at communication.   
She looks up at the roof and sees a shiny new satellite dish dangling from the chimney; down at the wall and sees the ladder leaning against it like a labourer on a break, missing only a hard-hat and cigarette whose ash to flick; spots fragments of slate on the ground. 
Old fool, she thinks, and roots in her pocket for her phone. 

You’ll notice several sentences that need to be unpacked and reorganised. And there’s a bit of a tense thing going on: degrees of past and present are somewhat confused: the cheese sandwich is curling in the right now, as is her assessment of the situation. But there’s a segue from her memory of the pear tree incident to the present I need to work on. And I will. As King has said, writing is a process of transferring information from your imagination to the reader, it’s hard, but worth it.


*Jane Eyre

Header image from the Facebook page of the Ministry for Antiquities.

On Becoming Unstoppable #2

Last Friday I wrote about my goals, and priorities* which, Benjamin Hardy argues, are paramount to becoming unstoppable. I followed his advice and listed the things I do every day in order to ascertain, by my behaviour, what my priorities are, and came to a tentative conclusion that my goals and priorities are, if not identical, certainly twins. My life goals are somewhat broad – as well as aiming at earning a living from my writing and being the kind of wife D needs, I want to contribute to a world that is healthy and positive for everything in it – but I think they all compliment each other pretty well. They are all about being happy: making enough to live on from my writing would vastly expand my happiness; a happy D is definitely a happy me; but the current socio-political climate with its emphasis on alienation and othering is like a huge puncture in my happy-balloon. Thirty seconds of news and I descend rapidly from the cloud of joyful writing to the concrete car-park of despair. So I do what I hope is a useful amount of community work. 

Call me naive, but I believe that nature and beauty engender happiness; that happiness is contagious, and that if everyone were genuinely happy no one would have any desire to cause pain and distress to others. So my voluntary work is an attempt to increase the happiness in the town in which I live, in the hope it spreads outward. Most of the time this fits snuggly with my writing and wifing, but this week it dominated. Thus, my daily activities altered, and my priorities shifted. Not because writing became less important, I still forced myself to work on my weekly story at the end of the day, and D certainly wasn’t sidelined**, but some things I thought paramount last week – journalling, reading, sleep, poetry –  dissolved.

If last week had looked like this week, last Friday’s post would have been quite different. My daily to-do lists have consisted mostly of organising and marketing a Community Council event, ensuring I’m absolutely au fait with town planning, researching effective ways to engage and empower everyone in the community, and preparing for a woodland volunteer day. It would have appeared that the most important things in my life were traffic signalling, old buildings, sandwiches, raffle prizes, poster design, and other such non-literary things. So examining the seventh behaviour on Hardy’s list of thirty: Eliminate all non-priorities has taken on quite a different shape. One might even call it gibbous!

Image from Pinterest

I’ve been reminded that life, even mine, is more complex than such articles as How to Become Unstoppable allow. I could, I suppose, and some artists do, ignore the outside world and merely focus on my work. But I’m not that self absorbed, and I don’t want to be that selfish. So, the question seems to be: how do I prioritise for both my writer-wife life, and my socially responsible one, and still succeed as a writer? I think the trick is to be flexible. Know what I want; know that’s more complicated than just writing, and allow myself to be blown slightly off the writing course from time to time. But, and this is important, never lose sight of the ultimate goal. So, to get back to Hardy’s thirty behaviours to make me unstoppable, how am I doing with behaviour seven?

Eliminate all non-priorities 

This is how Hardy says he does it:

As a rule, I only invest my time in things that add to my present experience and my future. Thus, I invest time in relationships that I plan to have forever, like with my family and friends. I invest time in my education and growth. I invest time on work I believe in. I invest in experiences that create profound memories.
What do you invest time in?
Is this investment making your future better than your past?

Oddly, even though I feel a bit off track this week I feel I do, and have done, all of these things. Yes, I haven’t invested my time in reading and writing as much as usual, but the things I have been doing do add to my present experience***, and my future. If nothing else I’m gathering a lot of material to write about. It has been educational, and, though I may feel slightly wizened as I write this, it should lead to growth. I believe in the stuff I’ve done over the last few days, even the sandwich making, and, if things go to plan, experiences that will create profound memories should arise.

Via Pinterest.

I feel better for merely writing that! That I have been somewhat overwhelmed by distractions from my art hasn’t meant I’ve been distracted from my core priorities. Phew!

I said last week that this week I’d also look at becoming more playful, and creating more peak experiences. But I’ll have to leave that till next week, playfulness hasn’t got a look in this week, and I haven’t had a minute to even work out what a peak experience is. Onwards and upwards!


*Amongst other things.

**Though you may want to ask him.

***You could argue that everything does that, of course, but I’d suggest lying in front of the t.v. for great swathes of time doesn’t.

Header image: Pinterest

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