Ringing Some Changes

Ringing Some Changes

Sometimes I hate trying to think of titles for blog posts. After more than a thousand, it gets hard not to repeat myself, and to be honest, this one is just a sort of round up of my own news. Possibly a tad tedious, but maybe not.

First bit of news is good(ish). After over six years of some pretty extreme symptoms, finally it feels as if there might be an end in sight for my hideous menopause. One of the worst was something that for many women is a mere inconvenience: hot flushes. For me, they became life-threatening. Not in themselves, though at times I did wonder whether spontaneous human combustion might be more than a myth, but rather because they were so extreme and so frequent life became almost unendurable. Drama queen you might think. I wish. At their very worst, they came at a frequency of up to 20 PER HOUR. You read that right. They were of an intensity that made my skin feel as if it were burning; the moment before it happened, it made me feel sick, as if I had stepped off a precipice. That feeling you get when you bite into a proper chilli pepper? Imagine that over every inch of your body. It meant that for about a year, I slept in perhaps 20 minute bursts if I were lucky. To say it was hell is an understatement. Given the way my GP surgery has treated me, I did not seek medical help; the idea of even speaking to one of the doctors here reduced me to a shaking, weeping wreck. So I endured. I tried many, many things to no real effect. I considered filling my pockets with rocks and walking into a river or the sea; lack of local rocks, lack of a shoreline or a river deep enough and close enough for me to get to are probably the only things that stopped me. But slowly the situation began to improve. I still get hot flushes you could power a small town from; I still get woken two or three times a night. But the intensity has reduced and the frequency too. Recently I experienced three or four days in a row where no flushes occurred during the hours of daylight. I have hope that I might have survived.

For anyone reading and thinking, “pshaw, what a fuss she makes!” and feeling smug that because they do yoga/sports/are vegan/insert reason it won’t or didn’t affect them, let me say this: it’s luck of the draw, not virtue, that means some women have a bad time and others don’t. I may write more on the topic another time.

Second bit of good news: I did a new edition of Away With The Fairies in paperback. The original edition was done via Lulu who don’t offer a matte option for covers; I’ve not been happy with their services for some time, for other reasons. One is the sheer glacial slowness of their reporting of sales. So I’d redone Strangers and Pilgrims a couple of years ago, and now Fairies. I’m pleased with the new edition; I wish I’d had the energy to do it sooner.

Third bit of good news: I sent the latest short story collection to some beta readers, and those who have had a chance to read and report back have been not only very helpful but also very encouraging. It would seem that contrary to how I feel about my abilities, I can still write. I’m waiting on the feedback of the others, then I’ll set about some edits and on with the process of getting them out. Unlikely to be before Christmas but given how small fry like me get drowned out in the big noise of promotions for key periods for sales, trying to launch a book for Christmas or summer holidays is folly.

Fourth bit of good news: for the period that begins at Samhain (Halloween/All Saints/All Souls) both Away With The Fairies and Strangers and Pilgrims will be on offer at £1.99 or local equivalent, and my short novella The Hedgeway will be on flash sale for 99p for the three days of Samhain itself. Billed as “a chilling tale for Samhain” it’s the perfect read as the nights draw in and the clocks go back (it’s a spooky story but it’s more unsettling than terrifying). For a scarier read, perhaps try The Moth’s Kiss (a collection of ten short stories, perfect for the season). I’m considering whether to also make that 99p for the Kindle version for the same period.

Which brings me to point five, which is the not so good stuff. If you are an author, especially an independent author, you’ll have spotted that it’s much harder to sell books now than it was a few years ago; virtually all the indy authors I know have seen a steady slide of lower and lower sales, with the occasional blip when a new book is launched. It’s depressing as hell. Lowering prices seems to be a way of potentially enticing a reader to take a punt on a book, but how low can you go before you are not meeting even basic costs? Lots of authors still tout the route of give a book away free (especially in a series) but there’s evidence that this tactic that worked a few years ago, is now bringing in very diminished returns. Readers have quite literally MILLIONS of books to choose from, and many pride themselves on never actually buying one. Again, depressing. Some respond by writing and publishing much faster, so that there’s always something new to tempt readers with; the risk is that you can potentially rush things and lose both quality and originality in the process. This year I have published one novel and two collections of poetry; I’ve finished writing a novel that I’m sitting on for a while. My mental health in particular means that even getting books out from my extensive “back catalogue” of books on my hard drive has become the equivalent of climbing Snowden or Scafell Pike (not Everest or K2): difficult, dangerous, and while not impossible, will take much preparation and training.

Sixth point: mental health. The current deep dark valley sometimes feels like the valley of death itself. Everything is such an effort and I find most things are not worth the effort involved. If you’ve never felt the tentacles of depression, you probably might find it hard to believe quite how debilitating depression is. You cant just cheer up, make an effort to focus only on the good things (and every other cliché people suggest). I feel paralysed by it. So the projects I would like to work on gather dust (real or virtual) and I stand in danger of slipping away as an author and poet because I cannot compete in the bright, immediate, throwaway world out there that is the world of books.

So, a mixed bag, really. I’ve put the good stuff first and in the spirit of making a proper shit sandwich (a fabulous term, that you can probably work out) I’m going to end on a good bit too. I’ve always found that autumn is the best time for my own creativity; I’ve never felt much like joining the whole NaNoWriMo that goes on in November. But what I am going to try to do is to focus on short fiction; I began a collection of short stories, each based on a famous perfume. They’re good fun to write and it indulges my love of fragrance. I have also several sets of Storyworld Cards as story prompts and I’ve got plenty of journals to dedicate to them. So even if I can’t come up with a new novel that grabs me by the throat, I can spend time honing my skills in short fiction.

I might even share some here…

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No-one Should Be Left Behind

No-one Should Be Left Behind

August is now behind us and with it, my summer holiday. We managed to get away for a while (a big achievement, actually) and one of our destinations was Glastonbury. I’ve always loved the place, with its mix of spirituality, history, woo-woo and the best selection of metaphysical and alternative shops almost anywhere. We stayed in a tiny, quirky and rather fabulous B&B with the tiniest upstairs bathroom I’ve ever seen. Converted (I think) from a linen cupboard, I felt there was a danger of me getting jammed between sink and door if I had second helpings at dinner. The place had very comfy beds, superb breakfasts and interesting hosts, one of whom runs tours of various Avalonian locations. They also had a wonderful dog who reminded me of our long-gone Holly.

I digress a little, but it’s important you know (for context) that it was very much a place of alternative everything and despite being tiny (only two bedrooms for guests) it drew those guests from a self-selecting set of customers. When we got there, there was another guest who was staying, and she was there for two of the four mornings we were there for. It’s the conversations at breakfast that I’ve been thinking about since we got back.

You see, Morag (not her real name) was firmly of the opinion that as the cosmic energies (not sure how those are defined) forge ahead and the world changes and spirituality changes, those not willing to change and move on and leave behind “out-moded” beliefs, will be left behind or swept away, and forgotten. It got under my skin. I’m not someone who is able to hold an in-depth conversation before my second mug of coffee, and I’m also not someone who likes to argue or even fight, any time, let alone at breakfast. So at the time, I merely made some anodyne comments and continued to munch my very excellent breakfast. But I’ve stewed on it since then.

The human population is broadly divided into two camps: the risk-takers and the consolidators. In early human history, the need for both types is much more obvious. The risk-takers were the explorers, the people who leapt in and tried new things (sometimes with fatal consequences), found new places and so on. The consolidators kept the home-fires burning, kept the tribal histories and lore and taught the children. Both types are essential for a healthy society; various aspects of neuro-diversity also mirror this divide. Just as introversion and extroversion are hard-wired neurological aspects of self, this risk-averse/risk-taking tendency is also innate, though almost everyone becomes more risk-averse as they get older. It is possible and sometimes desirable to challenge one’s self to step beyond one’s comfort zone, but in essence, it is beyond the control of 99.9% of us to change that polarity.

So, in the eyes of people like Morag, those who do not gladly meet the changes are to be swept away and lost. Yeah, ta very much, Morag. How kind of you.

Sarcasm aside, it disturbed me massively. You see, in many ways, I’m risk-averse. I’ve explored a great deal into the metaphysical world for sure, but with a foot firmly in the camp of common sense and critical thinking and I’ve avoided swallowing whole the bovine excrement that’s on sale in the New Age market place. I’ve found myself returning to old truths and ancient, well-tried wisdoms from faith systems that are unfashionable now. You may or may not know that for the last 20 or so years I’ve been a Quaker Attender and the Quaker faith is one that very much believes in the idea of no one left behind. All Meetings for Business work on the model that unless there is complete consensus, then nothing is done. If just one person disagrees with the direction being proposed, no decision will be made. Surprisingly, this does not result in total stagnation; because Quakers are the people they are, it’s not unusual for someone to decide to agree to the will of the meeting, withdrawing their objection on the basis that the greater majority may be right and they themselves may be wrong.

There is a strange kind of snobbery about embracing new things; those who rush to grab the latest gadgets, systems, clothes, can be very disparaging about those who do not. Among the spirituality and alternative health movements, Morag’s attitudes seem ubiquitous; I’ve read tweets from advocates of “Juicing” that would not be out-of-place in a tract for certain brands of evangelical Christianity!

Life is not a race. Nor is our inner journey of spiritual discovery. We’re all on our own unique path; it’s not a snakes and ladders board and we’re not competing with others. It’s also impossible to gauge how far one person has already come on that journey because what might be a tiny step for one is a mighty leap for another. Those of us who are risk-averse should not be discarded as useless by those who are risk-takers, nor regarded as holding everyone back by our cautious natures. We are doing our best to follow our path, at our own pace. And that’s how it needs to be: no one left behind.

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.

P is for Poetry

P is for Poetry

P is for Poetry

Or possibly, predictable.

Come on, you didn’t expect me to use P for anything else, now, did you?

Sorry. This whole A-Z thing is inherently predictable, after all.

Anyway. Poetry.

I wrote my first poem (I’ve probably said before) at infants’ school, so somewhere between the ages of 5 and 8 (when I went up to junior school). My memory suggests 6 or 7 as the age; the title of the poem was Blue. It extolled the virtues of my favourite colour. There’s no copies of it anywhere, for which I am sure you are all profoundly grateful.

At school I was one of the few who enjoyed both the reading and the writing of poetry. Yet after the school days were gone, I seldom wrote any. There’s a few tucked away; angsty, angry ones from university days but I think the sheer wall of hugely brilliant poets I’d studied rather impeded the idea of actually writing anything myself. Even my fiction dried up at uni; it was not until my daughter was a baby that I started tentatively to write again properly, having spent my childhood and teens scribbling.

Why poetry? What’s the point of it, is a question I’ve heard too often. Poetry says things in ways prose cannot and will not. It’s not about flowery language but about finding a way to express something (often deep and hard to articulate) in a manner that transcends age, culture, and sometimes even language itself. The brevity of some forms is like an expert ink drawing that captures a moment so perfectly, it never needs the colour adding. The longer forms tap into our unacknowledged need for rhythm and draws us in, with repetition and with something older and more arcane than the familiar story-telling of a novel.

As a mature* adult I’ve written more poetry and have found some sense of calling in writing it. It’s been published in assorted small journals (some now extinct) and more recently in national newspapers (I’ve had some in The New European). My first collection of poetry Accidental Emeralds https://www.amazon.co.uk/Accidental-Emeralds-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B00LM890TG/ several times reached the sweet spot of number one in Love Poetry. My second Hallowed Hollow https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hallowed-Hollow-Vivienne-Tuffnell/dp/1544615779/ made it to four in the category Religious and Inspirational poetry. It got its first review the other day and glowing doesn’t come close to how enthused the reviewer was (proud moment!)

But stuck in the pipeline was another, longer tome. A Box of Darkness stalled at the last minute. I’d got some proof copies and then realised I’d messed up the table of contents, and couldn’t figure out how to do it properly. I’d also used a quote from American poet Mary Oliver and I realised that this was unethical. Despite the quote being all over the internet, I couldn’t use it, either inside the book or on the cover or blurb. So I had to think again. Two years on, I was still thinking. Then a couple of weeks ago, I dragged myself back to it, and did it. A recent purchase of a traditionally published book of poems gave me a clue of how to present the contents page without having to jump through hoops.

A Box of Darkness (like Hallowed Hollow) is only available as a paperback, as I don’t feel a longer collection fits digital format There’s 60+ poems in it, so at the current temporary release price of £5.00 (or local equivalent) that’s extremely good value, but it will go up very soon. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Box-Darkness-poems-darkness/dp/1505904285/

Subtitled Poems from the Darkness, the theme is obvious. The blurb is as follows:

Sometimes we fear to go into the dark places that depression and mental distress can lead us into. Yet as many mystics and seekers over the centuries have found and spoken about, those dark places often contain the treasures we did not know we were searching for. These poems are the results of my walking into the darkness and bringing back the beauty and wisdom that is hidden there. Some painful, some humorous, but all poignant, I hope you will find these poems inspire and encourage you to seek your own treasures in the darkness.”

Poetry is an important but under-valued art form; there’s a lot of baaaaaad poetry about too. But there’s a lot of very good stuff too, and I think mine falls into that camp, not the other.

*however you define mature, I’m using it to mean over the age of 21.

All links are to Amazon UK but it’s in other Amazon stores if you look under my name and the book title.

O is for Ordinary

O is for Ordinary

O is for Ordinary

When I taught English as a foreign language, one of the lessons I did covered the subject of Love. Inevitably it had to touch on romantic love ( and Romeo and Juliet: yuck!) but there was a short poem I used too. I can’t recall the poet offhand, as I’d seen the poem only in a collection of poems from Penhaligan’s (they did a range of scented books, of which I had three) that had a theme of LOVE. The poem was these few lines:

Same old slippers

Same old rice

Same old glimpse

Of Paradise*.

I wanted to get across the power of the ordinary, the familiar, the comfortable, in a relationship. Too much emphasis is put on the initial stages, on falling in love and that heady experience that too often leads to heartache and not to real, deep love. People talk about the glow going out of a relationship when in fact, they are settling into the deep reality that does not rely on romantic gestures to be truly nourishing to each partner.

In much of life, novelty and unfamiliarity are seen as the epitome of what we must seek, whether it’s in relationships, experiences or in what we look for in our entertainment. And in the pursuit of the new, the exciting, the different, the exotic, we lose sight of the ordinary beauty and wonder around us. Simple things like sparrows become invisible. Yet a sparrow is intensely wonderful. We just don’t seem to see them, and flock instead to see the fire-crest, blown off course and lost.

Same with plants. A spring time verge in this country is golden and glorious with dandelions, as lovely as if they were planted, yet we overlook their beauty (and use, too) for things we have to nurture and protect to get them to bloom.

Seek the wonder in the ordinary. Enjoy a cup of coffee in your own garden, back yard or balcony, breathing in the scent and wonder at how such a brew came to be in your hands. Take a peep at the wild flowers and birds around you, and see them with new eyes. Embrace the ordinary, and it will hug you back.

*I looked it up: William James Lampton.

I is for Imagination

I is for Imagination

I is for Imagination

I considered making I for Introversion but given the small wars that break out over the introvert/extrovert issue, I decided to side-step the whole thing and go for Imagination, as suggested by my pal Nick. That said, I think that our innate neurological bent (innies or outies) may have some bearing on how imagination works for us and how those of us who were daydreamers as children may well often discover themselves to be raging introverts as adults.

Imagination is the factor that every creative artist relies upon. It’s the machine that takes a scrap of inspiration plucked from the ether like a feather falling from the sky, and turns it into something greater. It’s the whole, “I wonder if…” that keeps us moving forwards, keeps us discovering both inside our minds and in the world beyond. Used well, it is what gets a writer to the end of a project.

But it’s a two-edged sword. The imaginative spark that gives plot twists and character flaws in a novel is the same thing that takes a noise from downstairs in the night, and turns it into a home invasion (human or otherwise). Lived subliminally and unawakened, imagination is the engine of anxiety. It takes all the what ifs there ever were for a potential future, and shoves the really, really nasty ones right in your face and makes them appear ALL IN CAPS, blood-red and furious.

One tool on the path towards healing is Active Imagination, a term coined by Jung for something mystics and visionaries have used (probably) for thousands of years. The process is a complex one and needs great care, for it gives a medium for exploring the dark caves within our psyches.

Active imagination is a cognitive methodology that uses the imagination as an organ of understanding. Disciplines of active imagination are found within various philosophical, religious and spiritual traditions. It is perhaps best known in the West today through C. G. Jung‘s emphasis on the therapeutic value of this activity.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_imagination

People unfortunately seem intent on using the name for a process of creating their own scenarios, and controlling very carefully what occurs within them. This is folly, in my opinion, as the extraordinary benefits of truly bridging the gap between the unconscious mind and the conscious, are inestimable.

Key to the process of active imagination is the goal of exerting as little influence as possible on mental images as they unfold. For example, if a person were recording a spoken visualization of a scene or object from a dream, Jung’s approach would ask the practitioner to observe the scene, watch for changes, and report them, rather than to consciously fill the scene with one’s desired changes. One would then respond genuinely to these changes, and report any further changes in the scene. This approach is meant to ensure that the unconscious contents express themselves without overbearing influence from the conscious mind. At the same time, however, Jung was insistent that some form of participation in active imagination was essential: ‘You yourself must enter into the process with your personal reactions…as if the drama being enacted before your eyes were real’.

I’ve been exploring Active Imagination for some years now; it’s harder work than you might imagine (haha) and very tiring. You’d think that someone with a good imagination would be a ready-made expert, but you’d be wrong. I’m used to controlling (subtly or not so subtly) where story-lines go, and letting go completely and letting them just go where they want to is difficult and frustrating. It may also explain why I’ve found fiction so difficult in recent years; the processes are close but yet worlds apart.

G is for Grief

G is for Grief

Many of us have heard or are subliminally aware of the five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as postulated in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross‘s famous book On Death and Dying. The book was published in 1969 and was the result of her work with the terminally ill.

Kübler-Ross noted later in life that the stages are not a linear and predictable progression and that she regretted writing them in a way that was misunderstood. Rather, they are a collation of five common experiences for the bereaved that can occur in any order, if at all. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model)

As a result of this misunderstanding, people seem to feel that grief is both a linear and a limited process that can be “got through” in a set amount of time; it then seems to legitimise the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people encourage those grieving to move on, to put it behind them, and to cease grieving.

There is no hierarchy of grief. Some will grieve for losses that others consider negligible. The loss of a beloved companion animal is as painful for some as the loss of a parent; it all depends on the relationship and on the circumstances. Having seen others say, “It was only a dog/cat/guinea pig; get over it!” I can testify to the cruelty of such speech. We all feel grief in different ways and for different things.

Every one of my novels is about grief and grieving in very different ways and for different people. Antony in The Bet is buried under a heap of grief, so unable to process it that he has become numb and detached and so lost and vulnerable in his need for comfort that he mistakes the attentions of the predatory Jenny for affection and love, and so descends into a further hell. His journey back out of that hell is the story of one journey through multiple griefs. Strangers and Pilgrims focuses on the journeys of six people through loss, grief and unhealed hurts. Square Peg starts with a funeral and the loss of the only stable, loving person in much of Chloe’s life, just at a time when the loss of her previous way of life and the start of a new and very alien one has destablised her and left her at risk from loneliness, grief and confusion. Away With The Fairies is primarily Isobel’s exploration of the loss of both parents.

Yet grief has a single unspoken component that Kübler-Ross’s work points to, that all grief returns to a single point, that of our own mortality, best summed up by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poignant poem Spring and Fall, which I tend to remember as Goldengrove (another G)

Spring and Fall

(to a young child)

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

( I blogged on this poem before:  https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/endings-and-beginnings-why-you-need-to-grieve-for-the-past-before-you-can-begin-anew/ )