The Voices in My Head-This is Your Brain On Writing

The Voices in My Head-This is Your Brain On Writing

If I say to you, I hear voices in my head, does this suggest to you that my mental state is disordered? I thought so. Let me explain.
I have a range of voices that I hear inside my own mind; none have (so far, anyway) seemed to be external, in the sense of being like hearing another person calling from a different room.
The first of my voices is the mundane, work-a-day one that says things like, “You need to buy more milk,” and “Remember to put the bins out,” and other everyday things. It’s the voice of basic level consciousness, the one that reminds me to look both ways when crossing roads.
The second voice is more sinister and it’s also a chameleon. It’s the voice of my inner critic. I suspect there may actually be a number of them, depending on the severity of the information being doled out. It tends to tell me, in varying ways, what total shit I am. Sometimes it’s clever and it wraps this all up in what you might call a shit sandwich; by which I mean it puts nice things on either side of the stringent criticism.
The third voice is that of intuition. It seldom shouts unless I refuse to listen. It feeds tentative information about things that are often nebulous and hard to define. It puts together subliminal observations and stored memories and brings out of those sources often some incredibly, frighteningly accurate analyses.
The fourth voice is the still small voice. It’s similar in some ways to the Intuitive voice but has a different internal quality. I’d say it’s like the voice of my guardian angel, whispering to me. This is not something I hear often but when I do, I get goose-pimples and the hair on the back of my neck stands on end.
The fifth voice is one that in the past had prominence: narrative voice. It’s the thundering of tales in my head, the turning of a few thoughts into a coherent, compelling story that if I let it, can keep me awake all night, and typing for days until I become exhausted. Before I was ill, this voice would be there constantly, like white noise. Sometimes it became overwhelming and to get rid of it, I had to write until it stopped driving me. This narrative voice is starting to increase again. For a long while it was blocked (by the effects of my parathyroid tumour) and was dim. I had to become very, very still and undistracted to be able to tune into it. Sometimes it was shut off entirely.
So in the light of this, I found the following New York Times article (This is Your Brain on Writing) intensely comforting. The experiment was to look at the human brain during the act of writing. They did a number of different tests, to see what parts of the brain were used for the simple act of copying, what for plotting, and so on and the results have been hotly debated. The conclusion seems to be that the way the brain of an experienced writer works is different to that of a novice writer.
“One region near the front of the brain, known to be crucial for holding several pieces of information in mind at once, became active as well. Juggling several characters and plot lines may put special demands on it. But Dr. Lotze also recognized a big limit of the study: His subjects had no previous experience in creative writing. Would the brains of full-time writers respond differently?To find out, he and his colleagues went to another German university, the University of Hildesheim, which runs a highly competitive creative writing program. The scientists recruited 20 writers there (their average age was 25). Dr Lotze and his colleagues had them take the same tests and then compared their performance with the novices’.As the scientists report in a new study in the journal NeuroImage, the brains of expert writers appeared to work differently, even before they set pen to paper. During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.“I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice.”

For the full article, please read it here:

In the wake of my surgery, to discover that my narrative voice is returning is excellent news. I don’t know how long it will take before the thunder of its roaring with overcome the critic and the everyday voice but I live in hope that just as my capacity to use my second language (French) seems to have returned, the narrative voice will just gain strength as I use it more. The brain is plastic and elastic and it can and will restore itself if given time and care to do so.

Why perfectionism is more of a threat to creativity than almost anything else.

Why perfectionism is more of a threat to creativity than almost anything else.

I’m often saddened by the carping, the petty and the pedantic more than I am by other things because they seem to single out a tiny blemish and declare an entire face ugly. I’m not among those who believe a few typos in a book render the whole thing worthless, and it’s taken me a long while to get past that fear that says unless my appearance is perfect I don’t deserve any sort of a life. I grew up with a belief that I’d never be pretty if I didn’t lose weight and get rid of my acne. It’s taken till my mid forties to leave the acne behind and the weight seems to be a part of me now. But I’ve started to shed the belief that everything needs to be perfect for the whole to be worthwhile.
There’s a continuous battle currently raging, between those who think that less-than-perfect books by independent self-published authors are ruining the market for those who strive to turn out polished manuscripts edited to the nth degree, encased in professional and eye catching covers, and with those who think that it really doesn’t matter if there are crap books on sale. Some have declared that sub-par books are the greatest of threats to any author serious about their work.
This last week, I came up against my own neurosis about needing things to be perfect. I bought myself two rather wonderful colouring books, as a part of a kind of therapy for myself, a de-stressing hobby that has become a huge thing among French women. I even joined the Facebook group. But the books were simply too lovely, too exquisite and too good for me and I had a sudden dip into misery because I couldn’t bear to set pen to paper and potentially ruin them.
A lot of writers obsess and rewrite paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter, seldom if ever completing a draft. Those who do complete a draft then spend years rewriting and rewriting and never quite come to the point that you HAVE to come to: this is done, this is enough. There’s something to be said for rewriting; it can be when you find your way past the chaos in your own head to what the story needs to say, but the endless polishing, the shifting of sentences here and there, becomes a form of procrastination. It puts off the horrible moment when you need to say, “It is finished.” No book is ever truly finished with and completed; there is always more you could do. Yet to become a book rather than a work continuously in progress, it’s vital that you stop and step away and let it alone to fly into the hearts of readers.
If you’ve ever painted, there’s a pivotal moment when you know that if you add any more paint to a canvas, you will destroy the picture. The same is true about books; there’s a point at which any more fiddling (whether adding or removing words) is going to annihilate what you have created. Seeking to write “the perfect novel” is never going to happen because most of the skills needed to create something that powerful are employed unconsciously and in spite of the author’s own agendas.
That’s what’s been so pleasant about the colouring books. Once I got past the “oh they’re too nice for me to spoil,” fear, it became a matter of relaxation. There is no great personal weight of expectation of creation involved. I am applying colour in a personal way to a work of art someone else created for me to PLAY with and enjoy. It doesn’t need to be perfect when it’s finished because the only person who sees if completed is me (and anyone I show it to) and as much as anything, it’s been the process of creating that has been important, not the finished product. It takes a great burden off the person colouring; if you make a mess of it, you can start again with another picture, or if you ruin the whole book, you can buy another and try again. There’s no great inherent creativity involved yet the process surely inspires creativity.

Out of the Red Tent ~ thoughts on womanly things

Out of the Red Tent ~ thoughts on womanly things

(This is primarily a post for women but men are more than welcome to read too.)

Two of the defining moments in a woman’s life are when she starts her periods and when she stops them, though the latter is seldom a single moment. In fact, it’s usually a protracted, messy, annoying and ill-defined time that women have grown to dread.
I had trouble more or less right from the first ever period, which arrived without preamble when I was barely ten. I’d learned about the existence of such things that very day; sex ed in the seventies consisted primarily of being shown a TV show called Living and Growing. We’d watched the episode about periods that morning and I’d given it very little thought as I thought I was still too young. I also harboured a belief that there was some mistake and I’d magically turn out to be male. So the arrival of The Visitor that day was a nasty shock on every level. The first year of periods was an awakening that was beyond my years to cope with. Mood swings, greasy skin, managing sanitary towels while still at primary school were the least of it: the pain was dreadful and I got little sympathy at home or at school. It was thought I was making a fuss about very little. More running around was the answer, you see, plenty of fresh air and exercise and don’t dwell on it. Every woman gets them, every woman puts up with it, stop complaining.
Medical help was rubbish at the time (and still is) and consists of the most basic of advice that we all figured out for ourselves, or being put on the Pill. My teens consisted of a roller coaster of weepy moods, acne, pain and anxiety and depression. If you grew up in those days, you’ll also know that sanitary products were much less reliable and pleasant to use; you might even have used those sanitary towels with loops you hooked onto an elastic belt that was far from comfortable or discreet. The stick on ones came in but weren’t that sticky and to get the kind of protection from leakage on heavy days, you’d often use two. It was like shoving a double duvet in your knickers. The shame of P.E when you had your period was doubled when the athletics season came around and the “cake frill” P.E skirt was discarded for bare legs and navy blue knickers. No wonder the day I ran away was the day I had double PE after my other bug bear, double domestic science (cookery).
The mood swings became so bad that the doctor prescribed tranquillisers when I was 13. Some Valium blend, they knocked me out so badly I stopped taking them. By university the pre-menstrual syndrome was so bad I know it was one factor that led to a suicide attempt; I started my period lying in an emergency ward, having overdosed.
After my daughter was born, I expected respite. Breastfeeding usually suppresses menstruation but despite my baby being a voracious feeder, within four weeks of birth, my periods were back, arriving like an unwelcome guest every single month. And the pain slowly got worse and worse. By thirty, I was in agony every month. The diagnosis was endometriosis, a condition where shreds of womb lining set up shop elsewhere in the body and every month, they too bleed and cause massive internal inflammation within the areas they inhabit. Mine caused appendicitis, and a further look-see with a tiny camera showed what my consultant described as “not THE worst case I’ve seen but up there in the top ten.” My abdominal cavity was a horrible mess, looking like several unshelled Daleks had been beamed inside, squidged up and blended with ovaries and other organs, and compounded by adhesions sticking things together. I collected fibroids and ovarian cysts too (I had a delightfully named chocolate cyst that had to be drained; left to burst, it can cause intense pain, life threatening shock
and septicaemia). The endometriosis was pretty much untreatable. The surgeon took one look and put his laser away; it was too extensive to touch. I was offered a hysterectomy, which was pointless as the endo was OUTSIDE the womb, and removal of ovaries to stop the hormones also removes your natural protection against several cancers and osteoporosis. I took the option to tough it out and wait for the onset of menopause; I had the best I could get as far as pain relief was concerned. What I didn’t realise was that I’d also managed to grow a sub-mucosal fibroid; that’s to say a fibroid that doesn’t grown on a stalk but grows in the womb lining. Every month I bled what felt like gallons of blood and every month I more or less passed out with pain. It turns out my poor body recognised the fibroid as a foreign body and was trying to expel it by going into labour. Yes. Bodies do that. It’s a way of trying to make sure that a miscarried foetus is removed from the body before it kills the mother.
It took two operations to get that fibroid. The first op had to be stopped because I started bleeding uncontrollably and the hospital didn’t have a cauteriser to hand big enough. Post operative infection led to my worst ever Christmas and I spent New Year on an IV drip. The second op, done six months later, also managed to remove more than 60% of the womb lining, a kind of default ablation I was very angry about. While I had no plans to have more children, I did have hopes that I might have a few years of NORMAL periods. I wasn’t terribly sure of what that might mean but I think I meant the kind that women advertising tampons have. Ones where you do cartwheels and go surfing and dance till dawn on the beach. Seriously, I wanted to experience the menstrual cycle as a spiritual experience, spending time being quiet and inwardly focused on the concept of my body’s natural cycles.
It didn’t happen. The continued existence of the endometriosis meant that while I had light periods because I had virtually no uterine lining, I still had pain. To make things worse, hot flushes had also turned up. Initially they were a sensation of just being a bit too warm a few times day, they became increasingly intense and frequent. If you want to imagine was a full-blown hot flush feels like, imagine walking your naked body through a ring of fire while your skin is dowsed in alcohol; the heat rises from your knees (or lower sometimes) and takes from between three and thirty seconds to reach the crown of your head, by which time you are sweating profusely and in a very unbecoming way. For me a flush is preceded with a feeling of lurching nausea and dread, like I would the last second before a roller coaster plunges down a vertical drop. By the time the heat stops, you are wet with sweat and then usually go icy cold. I’ve had my teeth chattering with cold before now. Now if this happened once a day, that would be bad enough. At its worst for me, it had occurred up to 20 times per hour. Yes, I said per hour. It’s impossible to sleep and almost impossible to do anything at all. When it was that bad I showered about 6 times per day just to remain even half way fit for company.
Take HRT I hear you scream. Well, duh. I did consider HRT but the remaining endometriosis would have been triggered into new furies by it, and HRT holds significant health risks of its own. More than that, HRT uses the most horrific practices to obtain the hormones from pregnant mares’ urine and I cannot in all conscience justify that suffering to alleviate my own. I have tried a number of herbs, changes in diet, exercise, supplements, natural progesterone and meditation. Very little of it has worked for me but the combo that I am currently taking is: 5htp, sage tablets and wild yam cream. That’s got the flushes down to a range I can about live with (that’s to say, between 2 and 4 an hour on a bad day and every few hours on a good one).
I haven’t had a period now for almost a year. It would surprise you to hear that I miss them, but I do. I miss the sense of cleansing that came after I began to bleed, the sense of relief that “oh that’s why I was feeling so unsettled” and the sense that I was connected to all other women. I don’t miss having to travel with enough sanitary products for a whole girls’ school, or the pain and fear that I’d pass out while at work. I still wish I’d had a few ordinary periods that I could have spent in a kind of metaphysical Red Tent, connecting to the spirituality of being a woman. I’m hoping that the sheer misery of the menopausal symptoms will continue to abate and that at some point I will be able to declare myself a new crone and that perhaps the journey I’ve had through the harsher side of being a woman might be of some value to some one. I know full well that mine has been a pretty extreme set of experiences, perhaps not the very worst a woman may go through, but it’s way beyond what most experience and for that I am glad. No woman should have to go through hell just because she was born with one set of chromosomes and not the other. But too many do. It’s time it changed.

Happy Birthday, Strangers and Pilgrims!

Happy Birthday, Strangers and Pilgrims!

As May ticked over into June, I realised that this month marks three years since I launched Strangers and Pilgrims as a Kindle book. Prior to that it had been available as a paperback for around a year or so, selling a few copies but generally just sitting there. I’d had people ask was I going to put it out as an e-book and I’d said yes, yes, of course and had done nothing. Circumstances at the time meant I didn’t do so until a shift occurred that caused me much hurt, upset and grief, and as a way of reassuring myself of my worth as a writer, I set to and launched Strangers and Pilgrims again, as an e-book.
When it was first launched, I know I was far from ready to publish. The book was, but I wasn’t. It’s hard to explain why without raking up past pain, but it wasn’t until June three years ago that I was able to face making a book available to the Kindle market which barely existed when I wrote the book. There’s something tender and vulnerable about releasing a book and Strangers & Pilgrims is dear to me. As I explained in my post about revisiting it after a long period unable to even look at it, it’s a book that touches people. The majority have loved it. It’s been sharing page space with some very famous books and very illustrious authors in the various Kindle charts for such genres as metaphysical and visionary fiction, as well as in personal transformation. In a small way it seems to have become a kind of a classic.
In the first year it was out on Kindle, it sold steadily and it continues to sell, though not in the numbers is did a year or two back. When I’d first launched it, as a paperback, there had been naïve talk about it somehow going viral and becoming a worldwide success. Naive on my side, I think; perhaps a bit more delusional on the part of the other person. I don’t know. I’m a realist. I’ve always felt that the chances of any book becoming one of those unstoppable hits are very small indeed, but like with the Lottery, at least buy a ticket! Putting Strangers and Pilgrims onto Kindle was like buying a ticket. There’s still a chance of it becoming that international best-selling sensation, but you know, the fact that it’s been read by a few thousand people (perhaps three thousand or so; I’ve stopped counting obsessively now) is a HUGE thing for me. It’s not a beach read or a blockbuster thriller and the fact that it’s reached that many people is amazing to me. Literary-ish fiction is horribly hard to sell independently; the folks who like literary fiction tend not to be Kindle users and are those who love books made of paper rather than pixels.
I’ve been asked numerous times if there will be a sequel and for a long while I toyed with it. I let the idea go, after writing a few chapters. Nothing seemed to shine; ideas flared briefly like a match struck in a dark cave before dying back into darkness. Then, a few weeks ago, a scene came to me that I had to write and I wrote it. I think that the long term effects of my late and unlamented parathyroid tumour meant that ideas just fizzled and died, and I lacked the necessary mental agility needed to link ideas and characters and plots. Now I am recovering (other stuff going on but…) I hope that the mental progress I’ve seen will continue and books will get finished. The sequel is about ten thousand words down so far. I have no idea when (or even if) I will finish it, but for those who felt the ending of Strangers & Pilgrims was a tiny bit too neat, there were threads left hanging that mean some things will be coming unravelled. (No spoilers here).
Anyway, three years old (we won’t count the first, damaged birth) and still touching lives, here’s to Strangers and Pilgrims and many thanks to everyone who has read and loved the book.

(If you have read and enjoyed the book, but haven’t left a review, I’d be extremely grateful if you would consider doing so. Reviews seem to generate interest and activity.)


Everywhere else, replace the .com in the URL with whichever suffix your country uses ie .de  .ca and the rest of the URL stays the same.

Do you ever think of me? Memories & Ensoulment.

Do you ever think of me? Memories & ensoulment.

There’s a common belief that objects and possessions are just ‘things’ and that we should not be attached to the items we own. It’s trotted out as a platitude when people are struggling to de-clutter; minimalism is the current fashion both in terms of home décor and also for literature. Free yourself of the clutter than holds you down, holds you back and binds you to the past, we are exhorted. You’ll feel so much better when you chuck it all onto a skip and be rid of it.
Maybe so.
I don’t know. I find it incredibly hard to part with things and I tend towards being a bit of a hoarder if truth be told. It comes in part of growing up with post-war parents who themselves grew up with make-do-and-mend as a deep seated philosophy. When my father boarded the loft he did so with old pallets he pulled apart for the planks; the nails he extracted were straightened and put away in jars to reuse. It also comes of placing great value on kindness and gratitude. Christmas gifts were treasured and kept, and in the case of toys and clothes, passed on when we’d outgrown them.
I was looking for a particular item this morning, going through the various small boxes of jewellery to locate something, and it set me wandering into the past.
The cameo pendant my best friend gave me for a birthday gift a few years before she died aged just seventeen.
The little gold necklace my South African pen friend sent me one Christmas when I was in my early teens.
A little wooden brooch shaped like a tadpole I bought in Yorkshire when I went away with my youth group when I was eighteen.
A small enamel stick pin I bought at a school fete when I was twelve.
The crystal pendant I bought when I went to see a healer about twelve years ago.
My charm bracelet, complete with a dazzling display of unique silver charms, all with their own story to tell.
The sunburst badge give me by my poet friend Stephen, the dedication on the reverse blurred by time and rain.
I could go on. Each item is more to me than a shiny bauble now. I pick them up and the dead speak. The lost wave to me across the years. I see my All Shall be Well medal from the Julian Shrine and I remember the one I gave to someone who disappeared and I wonder: do you ever think of me? I look at the gifts of school friends and I wonder: do you ever think of me? I look at the gold baby bracelet my grandmother gave me when I was born and I ask: do you ever think of me?
I think of the gifts I have given over my life time and I know that there’s probably relatively few that are still intact, still owned by the person I gave them to, but I still sometimes wonder: do you ever think of me?
Some might shudder at being so bound to both the living, the dead and the missing yet for me, that these objects hold memories binds me to this life with threads of loving fondness. While someone thinks of you in a kind manner, I believe that somehow we feel it. The reverse is also true, sadly. That’s why some things are best passed on, but with care and love for the fragment of soul that resides in things does not deserve to be treated without respect.
I don’t do give-aways as such, the way many authors do, sending out signed copies of books, and book-swag, but I want to do a very different give away. I have a collection of trinkets, pendants and the like, more than one person could ever wear. It’s time some moved on so they might be loved by a new person. If you would like a piece of my collection, comment here about why and what you would like (there are no diamonds or gold involved!) and I’ll try and select a piece to send. You could also email me ( see the Contact me page). These are not things of any great value, in monetary terms, but I’d like to hope that once given, the receiver may sometimes look at them and think of me with fondness in years to come.
(The specific items mentioned are not up for grabs as such, but I was giving them as examples. I’m intending to choose intuitively from the collection when someone expresses an interest. There’s crystals I used to wear during the time when I did reflexology and other forms of healing as well as various pieces I made myself or collected or was given. All items have memory and story attached to them.)