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.

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.

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.

 

Rumble-strutting

Rumble-strutting

Rumble-strutting

If you have ever had guinea pigs, you’ll surely have encountered rumble-strutting. It’s a behaviour cavies have for when they are annoyed, put out, cross, pissed off or just plain angry. Rumble-strutting consists of a rumbling burbling noise, quite loud, followed by the animal stalking off, stiff-legged and furious.

I’ve been doing it rather a lot myself lately.

There are so many things I’m angry, pissed off, furious and annoyed about that I can’t do anything about and a good old rumble-strut is the only thing that stops me exploding into a million sharp fragments like a sheet of ice being dropped from a great height.

You’d have to have been living in a cave not to have noticed the UK referendum and the continuing fall-out from what I consider to have been an ill-advised vote to leave the EU. I have seen many instances already of how this vote (and we haven’t left yet) has already impacted on life here. I work in the travel industry; the complications would have turned my hair grey if it wasn’t so already. It’s my opinion that the vote is a disaster, yet I (and many, many thousands who voted Remain) have been dubbed Remoaners, told to shut up, put up, stop being a sore loser….

RUMBLE-STRUT

More recently, the US elections. I’m almost beyond words on that one. I’m not going to call names or anything…but

RUMBLE-STRUT

NHS cuts. School budgets cut.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Endless, awful wars, millions of people displaced, disparaged, dismayed, dispossessed.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Dreadful right-wing rags purporting to be newspapers, so filled with vitriol they’re not even fit to wipe your bum with in case the acid burns your tender nether regions.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Pain. My pain, physical and mental, and no end in sight. No plan that works to ease it.

RUMBLE-STRUT

The lost, the invisible people, those no one listens to.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Rich, privileged politicians pontificating about how we must all tighten our belts while they guzzle vintage champagne and gobble caviar.

RUMBLE-STRUT

There’s a lot I’m angry about and I’m angrier yet because I’m pretty much helpless against almost all of it. I’ve signed petitions, I’ve donated to causes, I’ve raised my voice where I can, and I’m tired because it feels like that ruddy big rock that poor sod in Greek myth kept pushing up hill only to have it come crashing down over him for all eternity.

RUMBLE-STRUT

But in the end, there is only one thing I can do (apart from RUMBLE-STRUTTING.)

and that’s this:

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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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