The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

I’ve been stuck so long I thought I might begin to fossilise in the crevice between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps I have. Imagine me stretching and cracking and shedding lots of gravel as I move slowly into the light, a troll restored to pre-dawn mobility. Now to find a bridge to hide under and wait for billy-goats.

Where was I?

Oh yes.

A couple of years ago, I started doing a paperback copy of Square Peg. After the first proof copies arrived, I gave up. Analysing it now, I can see why I gave up. It ties in with my love-hate-love-loathe affair with books and especially book-shops. In the last few years I have walked round most bookshops in almost physical pain. Some of the pain is sheer angst and anger that my books will never be on the shelves, but once we get past that little matter, the pain is harder to pin down. Books are exquisite things. Truly. Even if you never open it, a new book is a joy to behold; the paper, the colours, the very scent.. all delightful. But I’ve had a sort of recoil: it’s all too much these days. In a bid to woo (woo, woo!) potential readers, publishers have gone to extraordinary lengths to impress. Shelves and tables in Waterstones are like courtship dances of myriad birds of paradise made paper. They dazzle, they en-trance, they entice… and then I sicken. What about the words inside? The blurbs do the same: blind you with careful and clever constructions, teasing and dancing with your love of intrigue and the promise of losing yourself in another world.

And I find myself withdrawing like an anemone, springing my tentacles back into my being, and feeling oddly stung and put off. I almost yearn for the Zen-like simplicity of the old Penguin classics, Spartan and uncompromising. I don’t buy books very often in person these days; when I do, it’s usually from our very excellent Book Hive in Norwich, or the book shop in Diss, and it’s often non-fiction and often poetry. I am bewildered by the choices on offer, and the creeping sense of being bamboozled into parting with hard earned cash for novels that nearly always leave me disappointed. It’s the same online, too: everywhere you look, someone is flashing you their books, bright, beautifully designed and presented, begging you to take them, take them NOW.

And I knew in my heart of hearts I cannot compete. I cannot compete with those book-birds of paradise gracing the front tables in Waterstones, clad in their wrappers embossed with gold ink and perpetual promise. I cannot compete with the array of books online, perfectly presented, designed, advertised and endorsed to the hilt with a thousand glowing reviews and (because everyone suspects ALL five stars) a smattering of 3s and 2s and a single one star (which we all know is malicious, don’t we?) I cannot make my books look like those; I do not have the resources, either in terms of skills or of money to hire those skills, and so I gave up.

Some might read that and think, buck up, stop whining. To them I would say… well, I won’t say what I would say. It would be rude.

I could not proceed because I could not emulate the perfection on display and so felt I could go no further. When I began publishing, it was OK to be a little home-made about it all. But in the six years since then, everything has become alarmingly “professional”. One is exhorted not to let the side (i.e. other indie writers) down by being less than slick in your quest to be as good as the traditional publishing industry. It’s even made me sometimes wish I actually had a publishing deal so that I could step away from the other side of being a writer. But the memory of how appallingly ill sending in submissions made me in the past, stops me going there again. I’m hanging on to the last shreds of sanity and dignity as it is.

So, today, I tackled that paperback again. I fiddled and messed and waited and fiddled some more, and right now I am waiting for an email saying the cover is approved. It’s not going to look like one of those astonishing book-birds on show in Waterstones, but it looks nice. It works. And moreover, even though I sell very few paperbacks, it needs to be out there, even if no-one ever buys it.

I also wrestled the new book almost to the point of conquering it, and making it ready to start the process of uploading, first to Createspace and a paperback version. There’s a few more bits to do, and I’ve had a very kind offer of some words of praise to put on the back too, from another author I respect greatly (once she’s had a chance to read it and decide whether she does want to endorse it, that is. I’m cool if she decides not to, after all). Little Gidding Girl is all about settling, too, of realising that what you have is pretty damned excellent, and that all the other paths you might have walked may not have been the sunlit, joy-filled ones you imagine them to be.

People speak of “settling” as if it is a bad thing, but it’s not. Sometimes it’s the only way forward, to accept things as they are and work with them, because solid reality is something one can live with, and work on, whereas dreams and moonshine and unrealistic ambitions keep you moon-struck and paralysed. It’s been my fear of imperfection that’s kept me locked in this glacier-like stasis, locked like a flattened mammoth stunned by a wall of ice; the fear of being ridiculed for the odd typo, for less-than-stunning covers, for daring to be a tiny bit rough around the edges and thereby tainting others by my lack of care. Someone, somewhere, will always find a comma out of place and throw the book at a wall. Every traditionally published book I have bought in the last ten years has had at least one little issue, be it typo or rogue apostrophe. In the end, my only way to break out of my crevice in the rock is to admit: I’m not perfect, I’m never going to be perfect and neither are my books.

So. Watch this space.

Permission to rest?

 

Permission to rest?

It’s almost the end of January as I write this; Imbolc/Candelmas will be upon me in a few days and I was thinking, I ought to write something. I ought to do another Cave post. I ought to celebrate the slow return of the light and the changing of the season. But I’m not going to. Not today, anyway. I may change my mind in the mean time but right now, I’m not going to do it.

It occurred to me that it’s nearly six years since I last completed a full-length novel (the third in the Ashurst series) and since then I have limped along with a number of works-in-progress. One is over 60k words long. I had hoped/intended to finish it last year. But every time I thought about opening the document to work on it, I had this sinking feeling and I thought, “Why bother?” and couldn’t find the impetus to start. It’s the same with four other projects.

I am so tired, so bloody tired, and I can’t let myself rest. I keep thrashing away, trying to recover my inspiration and energy for writing; I write the odd short story, essay, poem or add a few thousand words to one novel or another. I’m doing corrections for the new novel, after the first proof reader has gone through it; I’ve done around a hundred of the three hundred pages. It’s like squeezing blood from a stone (well, not quite like that; the blood comes from injuring your hand, not from the stone. Maybe a better metaphor than I thought). I keep feeling that if I stop entirely I will never get going again and all the hard work I’ve done to create a writing career for myself will be for nothing. If I let go, do I stop being a writer because I stop writing, or can I be like an actor, who spends time doing other things and calls it resting? And what would I do, what would I be, if I did?

I want to rest but I cannot seem to be able to give myself permission.

Comfort Literature ~ the new trend for 2017?

I’m probably going to do a proper round-up post in a day or two but having watched a very bleak two-parter on TV (an Agatha Christie adaptation) that left me feeling even lower than before, it occurred to me that what I would like to see trending in the new year is literature that comforts. Not schmaltzy, saccharine candy-fluff books that pretend everything is nice and rosy but books that have a strong core of something special, something strong and real and comforting.

One of the books I read this year was Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree. It’s a comfort book, like all of hers I have read so far. It’s not light and fluffy but quite different. It’s about people coping with things that seem intolerable and finding ways to redeem the unredeemable. That’s what I mean about Comfort Books.

In view of this, for the end of this year and for the start of next, I have reduced the price of Away With The Fairies to £1.99 or equivalent worldwide. I’ve had many emails, reviews, letters and messages from readers about this book, on how it’s helped them cope with some very difficult times in their lives.

I’m hoping to have a new book out by Easter, and that too will be a Comfort Book. More information to follow soon.

If you have suggestions for other books we might all enjoy, please share them in the comments.

 

Dark Times at the Winter Solstice

Dark Times at the Winter Solstice

It’s been weeks since I was able to blog; in the years since I began this blog (in Feb 2009 FWIW) it’s been rare to let weeks and weeks slip by without a post. I’m more and more reluctant to share any original material; my drafts file here contains more than a few short stories and poems. But I don’t hit publish because it’s become a worry to me that work can so easily be stolen from a blog for all sorts of nefarious reasons.

As 2016 draws speedily to its end, I had this dream:

I am in a big empty wooden building, like a barn or a log cabin. It feels like it has once been full and is now devoid of everything but two things. On the wall hangs a set of ornamental shelves, for books or for objets d’art. The only thing on the shelves is a single large natural sponge, and when I lift it, it is feather light because it is bone dry; not merely wrung out but dried out.

That’s how I feel: empty, drained of all life, light, creativity and potential. It’s not merely that I don’t want to write: it’s more that there is nothing left inside to bring out.

This time of year is quite grim for many; I spoke of the very real concerns for the world generally in my previous post (Rumblestrutting) and those concerns are growing rather than declining. And in addition, there is the loss of light that is a purely natural phenomenon as we approach mid winter.

Mid winter is seen in a positive light as a time to rest, withdraw, recuperate, hibernate and husband our energies, but there’s aspects that we too easily forget that our ancestors may have better understood.

Amid the darkness of mid winter is another layer of darkness, a kind of residue of things unfinished, thwarted plans, hopes, dreams ambitions, a silt of the soul that leaks into the wider world. It’s full of the anger and the sadness and the disappointments that are all part and parcel of being human, sloughed off because we are not well equipped to integrate the side of human nature too often dubbed negative. It has to go somewhere so it oozes around, like the gunk you find accumulating in sink outlets and drains. Not evil exactly but unpleasant, smelly and completely undesirable. Like slime moulds, this residue has a kind of unexamined sentience; it can seem that it knows what it is doing (slime moulds are fascinating things, by the by; do go and look them up) and it has an unerring tendency to gather in the unlighted corners both of our psyches and our environments, seeking to be acknowledged, expressed and released.

You know the much-talked-about Christmas Day fights so common in most families? That dark residue is probably the culprit, nudging existing intolerances and tensions and putting a match to the blue touch paper.

There are many, many ways of dealing with this residue; too many to count, among all cultures that have at some level understood it. Lighting candles, burning sacred smoke of a hundred types (white sage, Frankincense, cedar and so on) banging drums, gongs, pots and pans, prayers of all kinds, dance, song, and a thousand other things, all help to defuse the end of year residue, and in the still moments of the turning year, they help to welcome the slowly returning light as the sun seems to stand still, poised on tiptoes, before beginning the long climb back towards spring time and the light.

#WorldMentalHealthDay, again. So has anything changed?

#WorldMentalHealthDay, again. So has anything changed?

#WorldMentalHealthDay, again. So has anything changed?

Just like Christmas, #WorldMentalHealthDay comes around faster and faster as I get older. I have a theory that the days are actually getting shorter, but that since clocks and all means of measuring time belong to the same universe where time is speeding up, no one can tell except older folks who everyone dismisses. That aside, here we are again, a day set aside to raise awareness of mental health issues.

I wish I had something good and exciting to say about the mental health provision in my own country but I don’t. Despite various campaigns and internet noise from organisations like MIND, Time to Change and The Samaritans, I can’t see that there has been any improvement at all, either in providing useful care or reducing stigma. A number of police forces have been considering suing the NHS because they feel it is entirely inappropriate that they have had to put vulnerable people in police cells for their own safety; locally I know of NO mental health beds available for suicidal or near suicidally ill people. On the last occasion I spoke to the Samaritans, the predictable question came up: have you spoken to your GP? I resisted the temptation to reply with asperity, but I did convey the complete pointlessness of seeing a GP when you have been bouncing around the system for much of your adult life, and that at present, all my GP would be able to offer would be medication I’d refuse and the possibility of going on a waiting list for CBT (which I would also refuse). The waiting list (last time I checked) was a good six months.

For someone who has struggled with mental illness all her life, I have come to a point where I could be described as high functioning depressive. I have never found medication to be helpful, though I must acknowledge that for some it is a life saver. I have only found it to make things worse. I have a low opinion of CBT for anything other than quite simple issues; it’s also become clear that while it is being used as a panacea for everything (it’s cheap) it’s very much contraindicated for a good number of conditions, including PTSD (something that is far more common and pervasive than people think, since it is usually associated with a single dramatic event in a person’s life, yet can be the result of long term stress, constant fear and so on). For long term serious conditions, much more is needed than simple therapies that are rolled out as cure-calls, usually with time/session limited courses of often no more than six sessions. But, we are told, there is no money.

Concerning stigma, I’m not convinced that’s reduced either. I read on the screen at the gym today some commentary on Tyson Fury’s mental illness, that trotted out all the usual guff about how he has everything to live for blah blah blah. It’s an ILLNESS, doofus. There’s been a subtle change that has in essence re-stigmatised mental illness. There are wide-spread ideas that are being spread via the internet, that it is possible to cure mental illness by maintaining positive thinking, smiling more, avoiding negative people, eating well, taking exercise and even by being consciously grateful for the good things in your life. All of these things may well benefit a person in the grips of a bit of glumness. But just as they won’t cure serious physical illness or injury, not will they cure mental illness. They’re coping strategies for staying well, no more than that. Yet it has entered the collective consciousness and the change is a very insidious form of stigma; people get told these things and if they fail to do them, or they try and nothing helps, it gets thrown back on them as being their fault for not trying harder or for whining or whatever. There’s a hidden attitude that actually depressed people deserve it, they’ve brought it on themselves by not trying hard enough to get better.

I’m also far from convinced that bringing in celebrities as Poster Boys and Girls for mental illness awareness is a useful thing. Many of those who have espoused the cause are, like me, high functioning depressives (other conditions are available…) and often don’t look like they’ve ever suffered a day’s blight in their lives. Then, when their lives implode periodically (for whatever reason) there’s mixed messages: first, so much for them being able to live well with the condition, blah blah, second, well if he/she can’t live with it with all their advantages in life, what hope is there for ordinary folks.

But I and my allies will fight on, as much as we can. There’s irony that depression robs you of the energy to fight for better care. I’ve made my book of essays, Depression and The Art of Tightrope Walking, only 99p (or whatever that is in other world currencies) worldwide, for a short period of time, to help raise awareness of mental health and mental illness. A recent review said that it would help others to understand what it means to live with such illness, and on a day like World Mental Health Day, I can’t think of a better thing for people to understand. The book will be at its lower price for a few days so please, please, please let others know about it, and if you have not already grabbed a copy, grab one now. Any reviews are very much appreciated too; the last time I looked there was nothing quite like it in the charts for mental health. Most books there are either self help books of some sort or celebrity mental health memoirs; mine is neither.

Whatever today brings you, I wish you all well.

(I have only added the UK link; for other Amazon stores, please enter the book title and my name into the search facility, or replace the dot co dot uk in the URL with whichever prefix is used for your local store ie dot fr, dot com etc)

“Never without my permission!”~ on consent, copyright and general good manners.

Never without my permission!”~ on consent, copyright and general good manners.

If you have ever seen the film The Fifth Element, you’ll remember the scene when Leelou, the beautiful alien “Supreme Being” is kissed when semi-conscious by Corban Dallas (Bruce Willis) and she responds by uttering a few words in her own language before kicking his ass all over the place. Those words, when translated by the character played by Ian Holme, mean, Never without my permission.

Consent is a big one, you know. Whether it’s for kissing, copulating or other things, it’s important. Most women (and some men) know what it’s like to have your consent ignored and even your right to consent/non consent disputed. But it goes beyond the physical. Intellectual property can be stolen, or misused, and that’s what I’m writing about today. I wanted to put into some context quite why it can be a huge deal for creatives to find their work used without their express consent.

A number of times most years I get an email or a message, asking if such and such a piece from this blog might be used for something. Sometimes it’s for a magazine, sometimes for a website. My answer is generally a positive one, asking only that my full name and my blog details be included, and that the piece is not altered in any way. I don’t ask for a fee; what I tend to hope is that the person asking will have the good will to perhaps buy a book or something of that sort. I don’t ask that they do, but I would have thought that common decency would suggest that there is a gentle quid pro quo involved. After all, they have been allowed to use my work for no money changing hands.

However, having recently discovered that a piece of poetry has been used and set to music, I was concerned. I had not been asked before it was done. I’ve had a poem set to music before; the Celtic Podcast Show asked me if they could do so, and I agreed. The Winter Queen was beautifully performed and the correct credits given, so all was well. But they asked BEFORE they did so, not after. It’s far better to seek permission than ask for forgiveness.

To some this might seem foolishness on my part, to be bothered by this. Perhaps it is. However, I sincerely doubt that anyone would nab a poem by Mary Oliver and do something with it, because the likelihood is they would find themselves in the hottest of waters and be lucky to get away with just a cease and desist notice. Because I am not a big name in the world of poetry does not mean I can be treated like I don’t matter, simply because I would not have the means (financial or emotional) to pursue breaches of copyright. Some would argue that I shouldn’t care because it’s exposure. Yes, sure, if they have included my name, perhaps there is some benefit possible. But it’s actually quite limited. Imagine a hundred people heard a poem performed. How many will actually register the name of the poet, go home, look up that poet and start to follow their work? And what if the poem had been changed to suit the musical needs or the philosophical stance of the performers? It’s a very thin line indeed.

Creative artists have a hard enough time of it anyway; theft on the internet is rife. That’s one reason why I have the No Pinning badge on the side bar. When Pinterest first popped up, I soon found several photos of mine from here had been nabbed, posted on Pinterest (admittedly, there’s a route back to here) and they’d put their own spin on the pictures. I don’t do searches for my name and my work because I’d die of exhaustion sending out cease and desist notices, I suspect. From time to time I know some school somewhere has been setting homework asking for “A poem on X,Y,Z” because that pops up on the search terms section of the blog dashboard. That’s one reason I’ve put up far less of my own original poetry and fiction here, because it’s unprotected.

Too many writers are getting so heavily discouraged by lack of sales, lack of reviews, general lack of interest, being pirated, that they have given up. To get a book out there one needs at some level to consider return of investment, even if, like me, they don’t consider themselves to be business men or women. I’ve had to stall my next collection of poetry because I realised it needed to be reformatted, and the back matter needs rewriting. It needs rewriting because I had included a short quote (well within fair usage policy guidelines) from Mary Oliver; I then realised to use such a quote on the back matter or in the blurb is dishonest. It misleads, implying that she has somehow endorsed the book. In fact, that short quote was a flashpoint that inspired one of the poems in the book, but even so, I cannot use it or her name like that. But because I have little energy to spare, this project is completely stalled. It’s frustrating because the business with the poem set to music suggests that someone (or many) loves my poetry but didn’t have the understanding needed to actually ask me before they did what they did. It’s not as if I am hard to find. There’s a contact me page at the top of the blog header; I have a Facebook author page. It means I have even less incentive to publish poetry or short fiction here, even less incentive to go through the work involved in getting a book together, because it would seem somepeople are happy to read, to “borrow” but are reluctant to support a poet in one of the ways that will keep them writing (buying a book, reviewing, telling others are just a few)

I wrote a poem today, too. But I won’t be sharing it any time soon.

Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

Lammas at the Cave

The morning birdsong is over by the time I leave the cave; I have not had the energy to rise at dawn to see the sun rise as I should. I have slept in, lying on top of my bed-roll most of the night, for though the cave is cool, the nights have been humid, sticky and oppressive. It has been difficult to get anything done, for movement other than the most languid kind leaves me exhausted and sweating.

Cooler air greets me, laden with the scents rising from the forest below, redolent of the soft rain that fell last night, and of green growth and flowers and a hint of ripeness. I do not farm up here, so there are no grain crops to gather in, but other things are coming to the point of harvest. A willow basket is hooked over my arm as I head slowly down the path that leads steeply down from the ledge where I live. I do not know what I am going to gather, but it seems to me that I should take a basket just in case. For what seems like the longest time, I have lost interest in my home and my life; though I know the forest to be coloured with the most vivid of shades and hues, all I have been able to see has been an endless mass of greys.

Under the canopy of trees, the path is dark and were it not for the white rocks placed at the edges here and there, I might easily wander. That’s dangerous, for on my mountain there are precipitous drops that you can’t see till you are almost falling over them. It’s not a place for careless meanderings, yet again today I let my feet guide me, not my mind, and I find myself at the stream that tumbles down the side of the mountain. The path follows this, and the air is heavy with the cool moisture and the song of the stream.

I have to tread carefully for the path is narrow and hard on the feet, sometimes becoming slippery and I wish I had not come this way; I consider turning back. But I trudge on, shouldering the empty basket, tripping sometimes, which leaves me breathless with shock and fear. Eventually, the ground levels out, and I find myself somewhere I have no memory of having been before. A great basin of rock, wide and deep, opens out for many yards and the stream fills it before leaving at the far end, the water draining away in a series of beautiful little waterfalls no more than five or six feet in height. The noise of falling water is deafening, yet I do not move onwards. I put the basket down and find somewhere to sit, cushioned by lush moss, and dangle my sore feet into the water.

It’s icy and refreshing, and I realise I am sweating with the effort and with the heat, for the sun is now high overhead. I had not felt how time was passing, and passing so swiftly, that my morning is gone. The water is inviting, so I strip off my clothes and slide in, gasping with the shock of the cold. The pool is deep enough to swim in, though if I put my feet down, I touch the rock. I swim for a little while before dressing again, and sit back on my mossy seat, damp and chilled and panting. I do not want to leave here, either to go back or to go onwards. Despite the noise of the water, it’s a very peaceful place.

A dash of brightness catches my eye, flashing past and dipping into the water, a brief vision of intense, shining blue that reappears on the far side of the pool, its beak full of a silver wriggling fish that disappears down its gullet with little difficulty. I search my memory for a name: kingfisher. I watch it dive for another, and another, and the fierce, brilliant colours are like lightning in the night of my mind. Then, full of fish, it flashes away downstream, out of sight and I am left alone.

When I come to pick up my basket, to my surprise it is full of fish. Much larger than the ones the kingfisher was catching, these are salmon and trout, and they remind me that if I do not grow grain here, I must still eat in winter, and I lug the basket back to the cave where they can be prepared for drying and smoking.

As the sun sets, I sit out at my fire, and eat freshly roasted salmon, burning my fingers a little as I pick pink flesh off the bones, and feel the blessing of the fisher of kings.

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