On this day in 2009…

…I posted my very first blog post.

I’d had the idea in mind for the blog title itself before I even knew blogs existed, but Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking took a while to come into being. I joined a co-operative blog, Cafe Crem, first, and after a month, I was ready to go it alone.

When I hit publish for this post, my stats will tell me I have done 970 posts in the eight years since I began.  There have been almost a quarter of a million hits. Thousands of comments, likes, shares. It’s been a huge part of my life. It’s where I began to reach out and meet people who (I hate the term) are my tribe. I’ve met a few wolves in sheep’s clothing too, got burned, got hurt. I hope I have touched lives for the better. There’s even a little book, intended as a part of a series using the essays in this blog collected thematically. The first book is on depression. There will be more (one day). There’s posts about my books, stories, poems, rants, paens, authors I love. So much here.

So, wish Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking a happy 8th birthday. Having seen many blogs begin, flounder, die, and disappear, I know that keeping going is quite an achievement and one I ought to be rightly proud about. Blogging is not longer what it was, as Facebook has taken the place for many, as a forum for sharing, but I will persist and hopefully, you will too.

Bless you all (in the true sense, rather than the wonderful passive-aggressive semi-curse of the American south) and thank you.

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.

Tightrope Walking into the New Year

To all my wonderful readers, a happy new year. I originally intended to write a post rounding up 2016 and making some hesitant speculations about 2017, but d’you know, I don’t think I want to. My good wishes for the coming year will have to suffice, along with this:

Because January is  pretty depressing once the decs are down and the bills come in, I’ve decided to offer my book exploring depression for a mere 99p or worldwide equivalent.
“I’m depressed,” is a phrase that means something quite different when it’s meant clinically, & the term has become debased, and used for meaning a bit low, blue, under par. Depression is not the same as those things, nor is it the same as grief. This little e-book explores both causes, self-help, deeper considerations and the spirituality of the process.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B014V7313A

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B014V7313A 

All other amazon stores, replace the dot com/dot co dot uk in the URL or search for the book by title Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking.

More info here.

What I read in 2016

 

What I read in 2016

I’m intending to write a post called The Dying Art of Reading but that will take more brain power than I can currently muster, so for the moment, a round-up of my reading last year will have to suffice on the topic of reading.

I keep a notebook of what books I read; some use Goodreads for this but as I hate Goodreads (it’s toxic for authors, for anyone with a thin skin and honestly, it’s data-mined more than anything else for connections between authors and readers). In total I completed reading 78 titles last year, which is slightly less than I thought; that said, I always have a good half dozen books on the go and some I simply don’t finish. More on the DNF topic another time. 34 titles were non-fiction, and some of those were doorstops that took months to get through, chipping away a few pages at a time. One of the first that I bounced my way through was a book called Brilliant Green- the surprising history and science of plant intelligence by Stefano Mancuso. Well written and entertaining too, this book was a joy to read and might change the way you see plants.

I’ve worked my way with glee through a fair chunk of the works of Marie-Louise Von Franz, student, translator, and associate of Carl Jung. Her books on fairy-tales are enthralling and enlightening reading; you can almost pick one at random and be amazed at the extraordinary information inside. In the same vein I read The Black Sun – the alchemy and art of Darkness by Stanton Marlan, and also Monika Wilkman’s The Pregnant Darkness – alchemy and the rebirth of consciousness. Both books explore the darker states of human existence (such as depression and grief) in the light of the ancient art of alchemy. I’m still pondering on my findings, such as they are, but these are excellent books.

Very worth reading too was Change of Life- psychological study of dreams in the menopause by Ann Markovic, and The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter – Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa and the Repressed Feminine by Marion Woodman. Susan Scott’s quirky little book, In Praise of Lilith, Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, was highly enjoyable too; a collection of essays and explorations, it’s a very engaging walk through some complex topics.

In fiction, I sated myself on Ann Cleeves books, gorging on several each from the Shetland and the Vera series, and then going right off them. I did the same with a number of titles by Dennis Wheatley and probably won’t touch either author’s works now for a long while. I might be in danger of doing the same with John Connelly’s Charlie Parker series, but he keeps upping the ante and on to book 6 now, I’m quite hooked. Each book is very different from the last but threads run through all that develop and tantalise. I read a couple of Last Kingdom books by Bernard Cornwell but stalled and will hopefully pick up on the ones I’ve bought but not yet read later in the year. H.Rider Haggard accompanied me on many miles of static bike journeys at the gym… he’s still brilliant to read even with the political incorrectness!

I finally finished Sir Terry Pratchett’s A Slip of the Keyboard; it’s a collection of essays and the like, but it’s painfully poignant to read and I confess I cried. I also read his Unseen Academicals, and cried laughing too.

For work I read a couple of books on Paris (How Paris became Paris by Joan Dejean and The Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne) but since I only did one Paris trip last year, my new-found knowledge has languished and I’ll need to reread them both to refresh my memory!

Some of the very best of the fiction was from indie author Gev Sweeney. Three books from her this year in her extraordinary series of alternative history: Ferial Day, Master Warwick and finally For The Burnable Cities. The Prodigal’s Psalm from last year is an excellent unsettling read too. Alternative history as she writes it mingles Roman, biblical and modern history in an unnervingly accurate exposé of current events. Without giving spoilers, you’d have to read them yourself to get quite how apt the themes are.

There are other books, some I have enjoyed, some not; some I have beta read (and therefore, at this stage cannot comment) but that’s a rough guide to where my reading has led me in 2016. I have not given links, but all books are easy enough to find on Amazon and if not, let me know and I’ll see if I can help.

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.

 

#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)

A Melange of Musings

A Melange of Musings

September is a funny month; even now, more than thirty years since I left school, I can’t help feeling that “back to school” vibe that makes me want to buy a new pencil case and stock up on stationery. I did indulge in a very luscious Peter Pauper journal for a project that reflects the images on the cover; can’t recommend this range more highly. It combines great beauty, practicality with superb value; my only problem is that it can take me a while to bring myself to actually write in one, for fear of spoiling it with bad writing.

Which brings me on to my first musing: bad versus good writing. I’ve had to restrain myself from reading the several thousands of posts that come out on this topic, because it gets frustrating and upsetting. The majority of such articles are written for (and possibly by) new writers, and they often have me raging at the screen. There is a vendetta going on against the humble adverb that has been added to now by an equally vicious smear campaign against the adjective. Followed blindly, this leads to what might best be described as Spartan prose; if you know anything about the real Spartans, you’ll know this is not a compliment. Come back with your shield or on it: not actually the best philosophy for life, and certainly not a template for good writing. Leave the damned adverbs and adjectives alone, for heaven’s sake; as a part of normal, natural language they have as much right to be in a piece of writing as any other part of language. Obviously, you can overdo them; your hand can slip and tip a whole jar of cayenne pepper into the stew instead of a pinch (and yes, I did this once. Only my dad, bless him, ate it). I’ll get off my soapbox now. For me (and I can speak for no one else) good writing is a balance between powerful, authentic characters who stay with you after the book is done, a clear, well-executed plot, strong, elegant prose that challenges the reader with twists and turns but which still reaches the end point succinctly, and a deeper level to the story that will keep you thinking about it for a long while afterwards.

Which brings me neatly onto the second musing: themes and “messages” in fiction. Truth is, I’m ambivalent about this. For a book to really win my heart, there does indeed need to be a deeper level to it, above and beyond the “he said, she said, he did, she did” of a basic story. There’s something powerful, sacred even, about the concept of Story; Pratchett postulated several times in his fiction that Story is a kind of symbiotic life form that needs us as much as we need it. Yet I become very uncomfortable when it is clear that an author has set out to write a book with a distinct message or purpose (we’re talking about fiction here), from a philosophical, or religious point of view. I’ve sampled some of these sorts of books and in 99% of cases, it’s badly done. The book is preachy, or worse, and the Story is ruined by the banging on and on of the Message. As someone whose books do indeed contain what I like to think of as “deep stuff”, it’s something I’ve become acutely conscious of. To set out to write a book about X Y or Z or for particular purposes is something to be very wary of. None of my novels were written to consciously to express any agenda or beliefs, but by a process of literary osmosis, my own “deep stuff” is explored and expressed within them. Story has to come first; one must trust that the core of any message a book might grow to contain will form and express itself during the process. You cannot shoe-horn a message into a book that doesn’t want it. And not every book needs a message. Summer has traditionally been a time for reading beach and airport reads that are intended to just be a bit of fun. I’ve never managed to write one, yet, but I’ve read plenty. Sometimes you need a bit of a break from what Tori Amos calls, “really deep thoughts”.

Third musings: the ocean of books and the problem of visibility. Yeah, back to that one. It ties in with the summer slump. I noticed that many of the books in the top 100 of books on sale on the might Zon this summer had extra long bits added to their titles. Sort of like a subtitle, I suppose. Now this was something that was banned a few years ago when I first began. You weren’t allowed to use these explanatory sentences as part of your book title. People got ticked off for it and their books removed. It really bugs me to read these titles: who says it’s a powerful book, or that it’s heart-warming or uplifting, except the person publishing it? It’s a blowing of one’s own trumpet that makes me cringe ever so slightly. What bothers me is that it’s clearly being done to increase visibility in the search terms. Should I rename my novels in this vein? (suggestions in the comments, please!). I think not. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t like being on show, or having to promote my stuff. Lots of authors go to signings they’ve arranged at local bookshops and events, but frankly, for me, this is a waste of energy and time. I’d have to supply my own paperbacks (often at a cost I can’t really afford) and the idea of sitting at a stand in a local event waiting for people to come over and engage makes me shudder. I’ve seen some of these; at a mind body spirit fair this year, an author of a YA swords and sorcery book had a stall and I noticed that people gave it a wide berth. Shelling out ten quid or more for a book you know nothing about is not something most of us will do; it’s just too much. I had a brief look, and found myself pounced on by the author whose hard-sell approach turned me right off. It smacked of desperation, and a bit of entitlement. I don’t know that there is a right way for unknown authors to attend events to sell books but for me it comes down to this: there needs to be a bloody good reason why I’d shell out a tenner (or more) for a book by someone I don’t know. That’s why selling e-books has the upper hand: a reader can sample 10% at their leisure without ever committing to buying the whole book. I don’t tend to tell people I’ve bought their book until I’ve read it and can whole-heartedly recommend it to others.

Final musing: hope springs eternal. To follow on the musing about how to sell books, the oldest and possibly best advice, is to write more and publish more. I’ve not brought out any new fiction since The Hedgeway, published for Halloween almost two years ago. If I cast my mind back, it did create a small surge in sales of other books. August was my worst sales month yet; deeply depressing, yet from what I gather, completely in keeping with what most authors have been finding. Despite having a nasty case of writers’ burnout (which is to writers’ block what influenza is to the common cold), I do have a good number of completed novels tucked away on my hard drive. My crisis of confidence has meant they’ve stayed there; I’ve been paralysed by the process and the thousands of posts about how everything must be perfect or you’re hurting other writers blah blah blah. But, having had a couple of trusted friends take a gander at one, I’ve decided I’m not a bad writer at all. I’ve had some reviews recently that have expressed bafflement that I’m not a famous writer of best-selling books already, and gratifying as that is, it does tend to rub in my own thoughts on the subject. So, as every author does, I’ve begun to hope that perhaps the next book might be the breakthrough one, and I’ve started the process of getting it out. I’ve got some cover art sorted, and the first proof reader has begun. I’m going to write some blog posts (and hope that there might be slots for them on other blogs, though I don’t intend to do a proper blog tour) and I shall polish up the blurb and the back matter till it shines, and drop hints here and there to whet the appetites of readers. I’ve accepted I’m crap at all this promotional nonsense, and that’s not going to change. I am what I am. In the end, they’re books: nothing more and nothing less. To distort my true self, to become one of those authors who can insert their book(s) into any and every encounter whether online or in real life, in the belief that somehow that’ll get them readers, well, it’s not going to happen. My writing is just a part of who I am, not the whole. In the grand scheme of things (whatever that means!) it’s not really terribly important that I sell lots of books. What is important is that I stay true to who I am.