Talking to myself

country road sepiaI spend an awful lot of time talking to myself.  It started years ago, when deep in a bout of anxiety, I doubted every single word that came out of my mouth.  Every conversation, however small, was later examined in detail. I’d beat myself up for the idiocy of what I’d said, my self-centredness and my lack of empathy for the person with whom I’d been conversing.  (Jees – self absorbed much? But selfishness, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of the side effects of anxiety.)

I’d resolve not to talk at all, but that didn’t work in the real world, so I started to practice conversations I knew I was going to have. These took place mainly in the car while driving.  I told myself other people would assume I was singing along to the radio or talking on a hands-free phone. It did get me through some necessary conversations, but it also became a habit.

And it’s got worse, because for the last year I’ve had to do a lot of driving. The kind that doesn’t get me anywhere, but is helping someone out. (Or maybe it isn’t, but that’s someone else’s story.) Anyway, I have to do it and so have plenty of time to yak to myself.

Last year, I had my first interview in about 25 years. The build up to this resulted in many, many practice sessions en route to nowhere. As a result of that interview I now, alongside the journeys to nowhere, get to go somewhere: my other world, the lovely Corsham Court, for the MA in Writing for Young People. Of course, this means writing workshops and, in these, I need to talk. It’s essential to discuss books, give feedback to others, comment on feedback given to me, and so, more practising of talking is required.

Once, in full flow while driving to a workshop, I failed to notice that the satnav had overheated and was no longer functioning. Hence, I missed a turning. For a considerable amount of time I was lost in the wilds of Wiltshire.

So, I’m back to Uni after a bit of a break and talking to myself has begun again, not least because our first reading-in-public event approaches. So, if you see a slightly frazzled woman driving though the backwoods of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire in a dirty and battered Volvo, apparently singing along to the radio, you know who it is.

P.S. Coincidentally, I have just read this: ‘my habit of practising even the most mundane conversations repeatedly before I actually have them.’ This by twitter mate: @blondiecamps  on her blog: blondiecamps.

Letters, laughter and family stories

A few weeks ago, I received a proper, old fashioned letter through the post.  It was from my uncle, whose laugh I can hear clearly in my head although we’ve only seen each other a handful of times over the past couple of decades.

Knowing that I’m studying ‘Writing for Young People,’ he wrote of his favourite children’s story: The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. In it, Phillip takes his small sailing boat to aid in the rescue of the British troops trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk. It has a resonance for our family, because my uncle’s uncle – my own Great Uncle John – was one of those soldiers.

dunkirk 1

Despite his rescue that day, Great Uncle John’s story did not end well. He became institutionalised as a result of mental illness and eventually took his own life. Long after the war was over, he was still a victim of it.

I recently wrote a piece for my course, the prompt being ‘an object lost’. I’d chosen my late grandmother’s house and, the more I wrote the more memories came back. It got me thinking about the stories we hear from our families when we are children and how they interweave with our own memories to become part of us. It’s made me think about the stories in my fictional characters’ pasts. I need to know what has made them who they are.

My uncle’s letter was full of lighter family news, too, including a photo of his first grandchild. Looking at her sweet round face and the distinct lack of hair, I could see the resemblance to my cousins when they were small.

Last week he sent me a video clip of her laughing. Light in the darkness.

Year’s End

I see I last posted in October. Hmm. And now it’s the last day of the year.

It’s been a year of challenges for me; some good, some less so; but they will all make it a year that stands out in the fog of my life.

I’ve been dwelling on humanity and its extremes. I visited a relative with Alzheimer’s this week. There he lay, as he has for the past four years, unable to communicate, helpless as an infant; yet he is cared for, fed, washed and shaved, spoken to every day, kept alive, really, and with dignity, by the people who look after him.

Hard to believe that in the same species there are those who will storm into a school and kill children. Children.

This morning, I saw it again.  On the BBC news app there are two headlines next to each other:

“Children ‘groomed in every town'” reads the first.  Sadly, that speaks for itself.

“MBE for volunteer maths teacher” reads the second. This refers to Gbolahan Bright, a teacher for 36 years who runs free after school maths clubs. “We view every child as gifted.  It is our job to motivate them,” he says. “It is beyond mathematics. The aim is to bring the best out of each child. It gives us joy.”

There it is again; one end of the human spectrum abusing vulnerable people, turning them into victims; Mr Bright at the other end, helping them to become heroes.

I’ve got my usual New Year’s resolutions, I suppose, but I want next year to be less about giving up things, less about hanging around in the middle of the spectrum of humanity through idleness, and more about doing something positive and in whatever small way I can being on the same side as the people making the world better.

 

 

Competition News

Very pleased to report that I’ve been placed third in The Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition 2014 with my story When Gloria was Here.  Congratulations to James Whitman who won, and Jim Waite who came second. Click here to read the winning stories.

The competition was run by the charming Wrekin Writers and the profits were donated to the Severn Hospice.

 

Rewriting Anxiety

I see that it’s World Mental Health Day today.  Here’s something about anxiety from my own experience. I hope it will help others making their way through the storm.

Think of when you have a burst of adrenalin. Anxiety feels like that, but all the time.Your heart beats too fast. You breathe too fast. There’s too much air in your lungs.

Eventually, you reach a point when it moves in and occupies you, body and mind, and it never goes to sleep.

On top, sits a good old dose of guilt. What right have you – well fed, clothed, sheltered, loved, educated – to feel like this?  Why can you not celebrate and enjoy life?

It makes you incredibly selfish, completely wrapped up in yourself. You snap at people who ask a simple caring question because your head space is used up just existing. You hate the selfishness, the snapping. More things to feel bad about.

Anxiety is worry that’s so out of control, it’s running around naked swinging its pants around its head. It’s hard to think straight, let alone curvy. Before you know it, even though anxiety is rushing through you, blurring your lights, you are stuck. Living is on pause.

night jpeg

If you read books about anxiety, you will learn that sufferers frequently catastrophize and indulge in black and white thinking.  This means always thinking that the worst case scenario is going to happen, regardless of any other options or possibilities, and despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

What I finally worked out, with a bit of help, was that I was using my imagination to tell myself a story that always had the worst ending.  For me, that worst ending, apart from the fear of horrible things happening to people I loved, usually involved being embarrassed, feeling stupid, not getting things 100% right, not being perfect. In other words, human.

I began to resent anxiety for stealing my imagination and I wanted to take it back, reclaim it and write a story with another ending. And that’s what I did. I got back to writing. I made things up. I wrote stories about people who were nothing like me and some who were.

Writing is my thing, but I believe a creative outlet of any kind can benefit the anxiety sufferer. Instead of channeling your imagination into creating your worse case scenario try painting, drawing, singing, dancing, drumming, baking, gardening, game design…whatever rings your bell.

Keep it to yourself or show it to the world. Be kind to yourself – it takes time. Baby steps.

I cannot say that writing alone saved me. I had some hypnosis and counselling. Exercise, especially outdoors, is also a factor in maintaining my mental balance. And some days, the anxiety returns.  Of course, it does.  But it’s not as strong, and it doesn’t hang around so long.

I say: Alright, Anxiety? How you doing?

And then I get on with my life, you know, writing, talking to myself and, of course, procrastinating…

More info at: Anxiety UK   –    Mind   –   YoungMinds

Coming Out of the Closet: the introvert writer

My guest blog for Writers Bureau is out there.

Their next competition is Flash Fiction and closes on 30th November 2014.

Humidity, Humility & Overthinking

lightningIt feels biblical at the moment. Thunder growling in the distance as I write; lightning cracking the sky open, but no rain. Humidity, like we’re in the Deep South of America, not Gloucestershire, England. Where is autumn? It’s September, for goodness’ sake; should be all misty and mellow, but no, it’s heat and sweating and plagues.

Yes, plagues. Flies, dive bombing as we try to sleep; woodlice – dead ones curled and crispy under foot, live ones climbing armchairs, wandering across carpets and dawdling over the kitchen hob; spiders, and worse, their webs silkily crisscrossing every doorway, like a mission impossible style high security system that can only be overcome by performing advanced acrobatics while wearing a morph suit. It’s beyond me. I have a bad back, only ever achieved a forward roll at the height of my flexibility, and my bum would definitely look big in that. The Daddy Long Legs are yet to come.100

There’s another plague upon my house and I’ve only got myself to blame. Twitter. Yes, I knew there would be bad alongside the good. It’s a great aid for the practising procrastinator, that’s for sure. I keep forwarding interesting links to myself to read – I don’t know when. Currently, about 235 such links are sitting in my inbox…not good. Twitter is making me think more, particularly about feminism; diversity in children’s books; mental health issues. These are in no particular order and will be revisited in future posts. Suddenly, after years of denial, lethargy and sitting on the fence, it seems I do have opinions about stuff, after all.

Alongside the good, the noble, the wise; the joy of connecting with writers and other interesting folk; alongside the kind and supportive, there are a few without humility, those who shout ‘oi, buy my book’, only that, over and over, and nothing else; and those with one desire – to claim more followers. Is there something creepily cult-like about having followers? Or am I back to the biblical? I don’t know, perhaps I’m over thinking. I do that, you know.

I’m still learning about twitter but I think it’s mostly positive. I take to heart the wise words of Katy Evans-Bush in Mslexia, issue 63:

“Generosity never goes amiss on social media.” 

 

 

Competition News & Technology Triumphs

Delighted to learn I came second in the Writers Bureau short story competition with The Delivery Man.  You can read it and the other winning stories here. Congratulations to Glenda Cooper, who came first, and also to V Mackenzie and Kim Fleet placed third and fourth respectively.

I had recently failed miserably at an exercise in demonstrating ‘voice’ when I started writing this story.  So I set out to try and get the ‘voice’ right and keep it going for the whole piece. I was thrilled to receive this feedback via twitter:

Thank you, Shirley.

Please note, people, I now have a ‘follow me on twitter button’ here on the blog, and I have miraculously managed to ’embed’ the above tweet into this post. Achievements abound.

Still, enough about me.

I received this email from my mum this week.  Entitled ANTS, this is it, in its entirety:

“Take a look at

Diatomaceous Earth

for getting rid of ants…… and other annoyances! (like constipation!

xxxx”

Made me smile.

“Respect the Water”

051

I was standing in the sea one day last week. The sky was dull. Low cloud hid the hills beyond the shore. The water was the colour of battleships, and turbulent, too.  Roiling, in fact, was the word that came to me. I stood a while longer pondering if this was in fact a real word or one I had made up combining ‘rough’ and ‘boiling’, both of which applied. Not boiling as in temperature – it was North Devon, after all – but in the way the sea was moving about.

When I came out of this reverie, I found myself deeper in the water than I’d realised and being pulled further out.  It was a struggle to move towards the beach. With horror, I saw that the same thing was happening to my twelve year old. I couldn’t reach her. My husband was struggling, too, but somehow he managed to get to her. They were at least together and had their body boards to keep them afloat.

It was a rip tide and we were thankfully soon out of it, but it was one of those moments where you go from happy family outing – everyone disengaged from the etherworld, detached from devices, engaged with nature, wholesome activity and each other, communicating with smiles rather than eye rolls – to a moment where you see the possibility of life careering off in a very different direction. Such a feeling of powerlessness.

I’m well aware that the two minutes or less of fear felt by my family is but a tiny teardrop in the vast oceans of terror out there at the moment. It seems like the whole world is roiling. Swirling, turbulent. Everywhere there is war, terror, abuse of children; protectors, either not protecting the vulnerable, or knee-jerking into overdrive; politicians, who usually talk a lot, let’s face it, saying very little about anything.

Back home, we researched rip tides and how to do deal with them.  Basically, you need to stay calm and try to swim parallel with the beach until you come out of the rip. Then the waves should bring you in. I fear this advice is not enough to bring humanity safely onto shore.

The experience very much emphasised  for me the RNLI motto:

Respect the Water.

The RNLI is a charity.  You can support them here.

Retweet

I’ve just realised that when I changed my profile pic on twitter, it accidentally removed the link from here. Not as cool or clever as I thought.  Please excuse, I’ve been on holiday and therefore not blogging. I have been getting acquainted with twitter, though. Still learning. Have made a couple of errors – one, inexperience, and two, lack of judgement. They’ve been rectified and I have ‘met’ some good and interesting people. I have 126 followers.  It’s amazing. I’d go so far as to say it’s enhanced my life (a bit).

So, this is what I look like on twitter now.

Actually, this is what I look like in the real world, too.  I know, big step. It came about because I need an author photo for a project in the works. More details to follow. It had to be black and white with simple clothes and background. I hate having my picture taken but the offspring were on the case immediately.  In fact, they don’t like this photo because it doesn’t look like me, apparently. Maybe that’s why I do quite like it.

Anyway, this wasn’t the post I was going to write today. That will be coming to you soon. In other news, I have been asked to write my first guest post.  Details to follow…