On Visiting With Old Demons

On visiting with old demons

We all have them, those issues and problems that we think we’ve dealt with until there’s that metaphorical knock at the door and there they are. Again. They’re so familiar that they cease to be an enemy but never quite become a friend. We see it’s them and we say, “Oh it’s you. What do you want this time? I suppose you’d better come in.”

Letting them in is better than slamming the door, hiding in the cellar or behind the sofa (done that, in reality, more than once) until it gets bored and goes away. At least this way you are face to face and it can’t sneak up behind when you are least expecting it.

I had a visit from one of mine recently. It masqueraded as “righteous indignation” until I whisked the mask off and realised it was Envy instead. I’ll talk you through the background, just so you know how it came to be there.

A friend gave me a book for my birthday and it rose to the top of the to-be-read pile and I duly read it. It’s a bestseller. My friend had it signed by the author too. But I growled and grumbled as I read it because it trespassed into a world I know really well, and the author (hark at me!) didn’t. There had surely been acres of research done but this is something where an outsider really, really doesn’t see things as an insider does, and there were things WRONG. Badly, catastrophically wrong, in fact; so badly wrong it marred the book for me. I’m not giving the name of the book because I have discovered that authors are an insecure bunch and a mere mention of their name or work on, say, Twitter, can result in a stern ticking off.

Oh I growled, and I growled and then, suddenly, I realised why. I was deeply, meanly, jealous. The book was just another opening for my old frenemy, Envy. I envied the success of the book and of the author, because I’ll never, ever achieve even a fraction of that success (probably).

Little Gidding Girl (when it’s out) will not (I am almost 100% sure) sit on the shelves of Waterstones, or proudly bear the coveted BESTSELLER badge on Amazon (except possibly in the tiniest of niche categories, if I am lucky) and I am still secretly raging that this is so. Everything is stacked against it. I am a realist, a pragmatist. I know that my absurd dreams are just those things: absurd and dreams. And hope is a terrible thing. I caught myself thinking, “It’s got GIRL in the title. Books with GIRL in the title are really selling well,” and I was angry with myself for that hope, because hope is a cruel thing that deludes, sometimes (often or even always.)

The GIRL thing? Yeah. I would like it to be known that I wrote the novel perhaps as much as a decade before the phenomenon (GONE GIRL, THE GIRL ON A TRAIN and so on) took fire. I have no clue why this one word in a title seems to attract attention, let alone why including it might, potentially, trigger a book going viral. I didn’t choose it for that reason; the title came before the book, and before the phenomenon.

It’s a good book. Having spent more time with it lately than I anticipated, having had to rewrite the last 20% to remove all quotes, and then to do a few last final proofreads, I came away thinking, yes, it does deserve to see the light of day. Lots of people will find the themes resonate with them, and I hope it will also help.

Having recently completed that WIP that I began 4 years ago, finishing the rewrites for Little Gidding Girl, and getting it uploaded to Createspace for paperback, I wanted to reward myself for it. I’ve already found that punishing myself for being slow or ineffectual doesn’t work, so perhaps a reward might help. This time, not perfume. There’s nothing wheedling its scented fingers into my vulnerable psyche at the moment; I might well have satisfied that type of craving for a while. I’ve always loved soft toys and I was looking for something special that “called” to me and I found her in the form of a bunny. Many of us have always known that teddy bears and their cohorts of other creatures defend us from demons and monsters, and while my demons might not be hiding under my bed, I think I need some help defending myself against them. So soft and so sweet and timid-looking, she’s become my companion and supporter; beyond that I won’t explain. You’ll either understand or you won’t.

I am envious at times of the success of others. It’s pretty hard to admit that, because it’s not something to be proud of. Breaking it down, though, I make myself understand that perhaps their success has come at a price I would not be willing to pay. In this case, contractual obligations of writing a series that has been extremely popular (I anticipate a TV series for this one) might well have meant having to produce books when there was no real inspiration for them and perhaps when the last few books have had plenty of reviews calling them pot-boilers. I have the enviable freedom at present to write or not write what I want. I can go in directions diametrically opposed to the paths I’ve already trodden and there’s no one to stop me. I’m not going to get angry phone calls from an agent, demanding to know about the manuscript I promised three weeks ago.

Hear that? That’s the sound of the door slamming as Envy storms off, for the time being, realising they are no match for a girl and her bunny.

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

(This is going to be one of those posts that might get on the nerves of the optimists among you, so perhaps bear with me rather than tutting. I could do with a bit of compassion and understanding right now.)

On Monday I completed a book I began more than four years ago. Coming in at a fairly slender 73k words, it’s provisionally entitled Belle Dame, and it’s the first full length work I’ve managed to finish in a whisker over six years. Someone said the other day that it’s the dream of many people to actually write a book and that finishing one is a cause for celebration, but I’m ambivalent about it these days.

But finishing this book is a bigger deal than that. Around six years ago, a variety of connected events pretty much ended me as a writer. They almost ended me as a person, and while I’m not going to go into details, they’ve left scars. Compounded with the insidious effects of Dexter my parathyroid tumour (now removed) and the effects of joint hypermobility syndrome (which is much more than being a bit bendy), I lost the flow and the joy of writing books. Belle Dame was a project that tied into my exploration of finding some healing for the original events and the knock-on effects, as well as more prosaically being able to say, “Yes, I am still a writer. I’m working on X book.” I’m actually working on about five other books too, but none anywhere close to completion.

Belle Dame was also a way of trying to find a kind of closure denied me in real life, and that function of the book meant that I could not think how to end the story that honoured my beliefs and philosophies, as well as being a satisfying ending to the tale itself. It was, to put it bluntly, a real conundrum. I set myself a final deadline of Monday, saying to myself if I did it, I would use birthday money to buy a special treat I’d been coveting for over a year. When I did type THE END on Monday afternoon, I felt flat. I’d seen over the last few years other writers on social media waxing lyrical about what a terrific feeling it is to type those epic words, and how fabulous it it. Yet I felt nothing more than a sense of relief, and a sense also of mild dread. No one has read it yet (except me of course and I don’t count) and I’m not sure I want anyone to. I can’t face even the well-chosen critiques of people who love me and love my writing. I certainly can’t face the idea of publishing it. To put it out there for anyone to read and rip apart, horrifies me. Equally, I’m not sure I can face the more likely reality of publishing it and having an echoing, deafening silence because no one buys it and no one reads it, because no one really cares (out there in the big bad world of books) how long a book took an author to write or what it cost them in terms of emotional angst and agony. The bottom line at present seems to be this: if it’s free, people might grab it but not read it, if it costs a few quid, a few might take a punt on it, and if it’s priced the same as a posh coffee, your friends might buy it to support you. There are too many books out there these days to have much of a chance of gaining attention if you don’t write in the really popular genres and if you’re not also an entrepreneur.

A friend made the suggestion that perhaps I should return to seeking traditional publishing deals, because getting attention and sales for my kind of books now is perhaps beyond the remit of self-publishing and my skills therein. That too I cannot face. I’ve been through that mill twice, with all the pain that entails. I’m also pretty anti publisher. I am, to quote the friend, between a rock and a hard place.

Little Gidding Girl is also stuck. I’ve decided that the only way of avoiding a whole world of trouble with permissions and copyright issues without basically supping with the devil, is to rewrite the last fifty pages so that they work without the quotes I’d originally used (believing at the time that a publisher would deal with that side of things for me. How naïve I was.) This will take more courage and energy I have right now. I suspect I’ll wake up one morning and think, today’s the day and just do it, but at the moment I cannot get my brain around it. Again, the feeling of dread persists. I don’t want to publish the book and after half a dozen kind friends buy a copy, for it to sink into the swamp of forgotten books. It boils down to this: people read for very different reasons from the ones I write for (if that makes sense). I’ve never written solely to entertain and while my books are entertaining, there’s more than that to them.

I bought my treat with some glee, but I don’t feel I have achieved any sort of inner celebration for this book and that’s dreadfully sad. This may be connected to the very persistent low mood aka depression I’ve begun to realise is probably my lot for life now; the inability to feel anything is a classic symptom of depression.

But all that not withstanding, I did it. I finished the book and next time you have a nice glass of wine, whiskey or whatever your tipple is, tip that glass to me and wink, and silently whisper, “Congratulations!” and maybe I’ll feel it too.

Y is for Yes

Y is for Yes

The year I turned forty, my life was turned upside down and inside out with a change of career and of pretty much everything for my husband (and by default, the whole family). After the shock of it wore off, I made up my mind to say YES to things that scared the living daylights out of me. Owing to poor mental health and starting a family, I’d never managed to launch a proper career and returning to the workplace was a frightening experience, one that I am not sure to this day that people ever understood that I was utterly terrified by everything asked of me. I think I did a lot of something that verged on disassociation, a constant pretence, a wearing of a mask that meant I could do my job even though much of me was screaming to be allowed to run away. I used to joke, in fact, that I kept an invisible mask in my desk drawer at work that I would take out at the start of the day and put back at the end.

As well as mental health issues, I was also coping with severe endometriosis, so much so that much of the month I was in pain and for about a week, I was in agony. But I still said yes: yes to the teaching, yes to the tours and the airport and station and port pick-ups of students. I said yes to another type of tour, one that took me into the heart of Europe, often to places I’d never been before, to be a tour guide.

Later, I said yes to self-publishing, even though I’d always in the past felt it wasn’t for me (that was based on an understanding that came from the original self-publishing model that was in fact, vanity publishing) and while the first attempt and all the mess that created (someone else did it for me, something I now regret quite bitterly) wasn’t perfect, I learned from it and improved.

I said yes to my husband returning to his ministry, despite fears of being betrayed again, and I have no regret on this score. I live somewhere now I feel comfortable in and I love my home.

But saying yes to everything is not a good thing. I need to learn to say no more. Not just NO to the massive social injustices and world problems but also to the demands of own little world. I need to say yes to more compassion towards myself; to say yes to taking care of me, rather than always putting others first. I’ve never liked myself much and I sometimes fear that I may seek the approval of others so that the approbation and admiration they might feel towards me might make up for the lack of those things in myself.

X is for X-rated

X is for X-rated

Not so long ago, I shared a very interesting post about writing to a Facebook group for Christian writers; the post contained some strong language and I put up a content note so that people could avoid if they chose or to read it later as it was something one would call NSFW (not suitable for work). I’ve never had much of a beef with strong language; the use of so-called swear words is for a writer a fine line between realism and personal sensibilities. For someone of faith, it would seem it’s the biggest, most heinous of crimes, judging by the reactions I saw then and at other times. I’m not going to go into the theology of it; that’s not my bag and despite what people say, the evidence that the use of strong or even foul language is forbidden in the Bible, is weak, flawed and based on simplistic thinking, poor understanding of the texts and ambiguous translations.

Words are just words. The use of culturally taboo words in our society serves a very valuable function, when used wisely. If you are not someone who peppers their speech with “rude” words, there is a powerful endorphine boost if they are used in moments of extreme need (pain, grief, shock etc) that is diluted if you are habituated to using them; it’s the breaking of taboo that gives that rush that will relieve pain, give sometimes a rush of energy (to lift the car off your foot) and allow feelings that have become blocked and frozen to flow again.

What are truly obscenities in this world are not the f-word or the c-word, but rather the abuses of war, rape, famine, cruelty, political greed, alienation and a hundred other things that in my book are far more to be recoiled from than the occasional ripe phrase ripped from an honest, hurting heart.

T is for Triggered

T is for Triggered

Triggered

I’d expected the land to be silent,

For willows to weep and doves to mourn.

Yet larks sang, rising over acres

Of emerald green winter wheat

And bare fields sown with a million flints

Shattered by behemoth harrow and plough.

I’d expected rain, at the very least;

Tempestuous clouds letting rip

With a deluge to drown us all.

Yet the sky is merely grey and dull,

The usual March dampness to the air,

And the temperature hovering at mild.

I’d expected signs and portents

Speaking of grim days to come,

Harbingers of doom,warning us.

But only a confused owl hooted in a copse,

Awoken by smaller birds, squabbling,

Fighting for territory and for mates.

I’d expected the little river to be

Cloudy with mud and debris

From passing storms upstream,

Yet it flowed clear and fresh,

And I found myself expecting the kingfisher,

Sticklebacks and the elusive dipper.

When we go, nature will not mourn or miss us.

She will sigh with relief like a hurricane.

A few generations of cats and dogs

May remember us vaguely,

Fondly even, and with regret,

Before going from feral to truly wild.

I will seize that ice-cold comfort,

Clutch it to me as a child might,

That life and the land go on,

Even when the world, for me,

Has shattered irreparably and forever;

I am bereft but I still stand.

© Vivienne Tuffnell March 29th 2017

(this poem appeared in The New European newspaper a few weeks ago)

S is for Spring (s)

S is for Spring (s)

S is for Spring(s)

I’ve written a lot about springs over the years I’ve been blogging. Indeed, I wrote an entire novel about a very special spring, the waters of which heal broken souls and mend damaged psyches. (see Strangers and Pilgrims)

But a spring is a magical thing. Water welling up through deep layers of rock and earth, bursting into the light in torrents or trickles. For early peoples as much as modern ones, a spring was somewhere both practical and supernatural. The symbolism of the well-spring is embedded deeply in both my creative and my spiritual life. When I have visited famous springs like the Chalice Well, or the White Spring, I have felt myself to be in the presence of a divine mystery, a holy thing.

Yet for all that, my creative flow and my spiritual journey have dried up, become fallow and unfed by springs flowing within my soul, within my self. Sometimes springs do dry up; sometimes they reroute. Some only flow in certain times and seasons, like the Swallow-head Spring that feeds the river Kennet in Wiltshire close to Avebury. I would like to hope that the period of dryness will one day end but whether it ends with a torrent or a mere trickle, I do not know.

Q is for Quitting

Q is for Quitting

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with writing most of my life and I have explored the process of quitting several (many) times. It’s curious to note the etymology of the word http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=quit in that it encompasses meanings that are deep within the word, but the origin that touches me most is that it comes from quietus (Latin quietus “free” (in Medieval Latin “free from war, debts, etc.”), also “calm, resting” ) from which we also derive our word quiet.

In my struggles, on many occasions, people have said, “Oh just take a break. Write for fun! Give the whole publishing side a rest. Don’t worry about it.” It’s well-meaning advice, but it won’t do. I cannot write for fun, because writing is not fun for me. It’s many things, but it’s very seldom fun. The whole shebang has been tied up with a wider picture since almost before I could read and though I have tried, I cannot disentangle it.

At the weekend, a friend told me a very interesting fact about tortoises that I had not known. Their shell is part of their skeleton, linked to their spine. You cannot remove a tortoise from its shell without killing it. http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=17+1797&aid=2700 . It’s the perfect analogy. Writing is my shell. It is not an outfit I can change at whim, or at need. It is part of me, grown from my core being from my inception. I cannot quit being a writer, or I will die. Yet the whole mess of the world of books is destroying me too.