Getting through the harder days – remembering what helps

When I updated this website a few months ago, I decided to remove my blog page on living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I don’t want to be defined by my illness – I am a writer who happens to have an illness. The writing is the most important part. But today, I have been struggling. I am perhaps still recovering from an event last Saturday where, ironically, I spoke about writing my way through chronic illness.

At this talk, I spoke of often failing to follow my own good advice on managing the illness. Have I done that this week? Whether or not this is the case, I am just feeling plain fed up of having to manage it at all. As someone said to me this week, someone who also has a debilitating illness, ‘In my own head, I think I can rule the world,’ but we can’t, and it’s bloody frustrating.

The temptation is to do nothing, but doing nothing just makes my back hurt and makes me feel depressed. So I try to do something, and to remember what helps. Today, that was getting out for a little while with my husband, for a coffee and a brief look in a couple of charity shops, but not being tempted to stay out too long. I was rewarded with a cute new pair of blue suede shoes (£5), which will be just right for a couple of new outfits, one of which is a silk dress I bought for a fiver on another such trip. Then, on the way back home, I had a craving for fruit, so nipped into Sainsbury’s for one of those ready-prepared pots of exotic fruit. I don’t usually buy fruit this way, but a quick fruit hit was needed. Sometimes the guilt of hurting the planet by buying things with too much packaging has to be outweighed by helping myself.

I laid down on the sofa as soon as we got home, and asked my husband to get the lunch, battling my usual urge to soldier on, unpack the shopping, unload the washing machine etc. We had good food, when junk food would have given me a quick rush and then a crash, so I was thinking well. And then, a sleep under a duvet on the sofa, the cat curled up at my side, followed by writing this post.

All those things have helped – getting out, being in company, not overdoing it, small treats, asking for help, eating well, rest, but most of all the writing of this post. There, I’ve shared it. It’s out of my head and onto the page, and now I don’t feel so bad.

Another thing that has cheered me is  Pauline Masurel’s review of As Long as it Takes for The Short Review, which you can read here.

I shall go back to resting now – promise!

A Few Wise Words, and in praise of short stories

I am giving a talk … in a yurt! I am wildly excited about this, having experienced the Wise Words’ yurt as a punter last year.  A Few Wise Words is a mini-festival of words, music and film on the weekend of 4-6 April 2014, with most events taking place in a yurt in Greyfriars Franciscan Gardens, Canterbury.

My talk is Low Energy, High Creativity – discovering writing through chronic illness. It takes place on Saturday 5 April at 11.00 a.m. Find out more and book tickets at £5 on the Wise Words website.

I was at the Save As Awards in Canterbury on Sunday, and was pleased to come away with 3rd prize in the prose awards for my story ‘How Beautiful’. This is available to read on Writers’ Hub. All the shortlisted stories and poems were of a high standard and truly diverse. It was a happy evening, listening to the other writers, plus readings from judges Sonia Overall and Abegail Morley.

I was, however, surprised to hear a comment to the writer of one of the shortlisted stories, ‘I hope you are going to develop this into a novel’. A short story and a novel – you might as well compare an elephant to a pencil sharpener. Short stories are not novel extracts, or the beginnings of novels; they are complete in themselves.

In many ways, writing short stories is harder than novel-writing (this is me speaking as someone who has tried and given up on novel-writing, so I am sure novelists will put me straight). I share below some quotes on the short story, which I gathered for a workshop I delivered on the short story at the Canterbury Festival in 2013.

‘A story is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.’ Flannery O’Connor

A short story is ‘fundamentally about character. The plot of a short story is nothing more than an unfolding of character, or perhaps the unfolding of a couple of characters. That’s the beauty of the form, the terrific sense of intimacy it can offer us.’ Alison Macleod, from ‘Writing and risk-taking’, Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt Publishing, 2009)

‘In his essay “A Short History of the Short Story”, William Boyd suggests that its defining feature – namely its length – is the source of its curious appeal. Its virtue is its brevity and its pull. There is no time for the gentle build; the writer’s chance to display his or her gift is as brief as that of the TV talent show contestant … [Boyd] likens Woolf’s comment about the deceptive ability of a photograph to enhance the picture of life to the short story’s capacity to enlarge our view of the world. “This gives us, I think, a clue to the enduring power and appeal of the short story – they are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature and, when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more than in real life.”’ Mariella Frostrup in The Guardian, 21 September 2013

I’d also like to add a few words about how a good piece of writing differs from a short story.

A short story has: A BEGINNING, A MIDDLE, and AN END. It TELLS something: it has a point  - why the story is being told.

A short story has a SHAPE – it starts with CONFLICT, builds up via a series of complications to a CRISIS, then a RESOLUTION and a falling away.

Watch this wonderful video on You Tube – Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes.

Join the mailing lists of Thresholds and of Short Stops who are ‘getting excited about short stories in the UK and Ireland’.

If it’s Saturday, it must be Sittingbourne

A month on from the publication of As Long as it Takes, and it’s been a whirlwind of events, press attention ( the Sittingbourne News Extra, no less), signing and stuffing books in envelopes and taking them to the post box. Oh, the glamour! Read the news article, by Andy Gray, on how I came to write the book: here.

I have been delighted by the responses to the book and to my readings. Here is one:

The world you build is complete with its own unique atmosphere, partly, I think, as a result of the some of the same characters recurring at different ages throughout the book. I also found that I could completely relate to the feeling of living in a place that can never be home.

I found the last story, ‘Combing out the Tangles,’ utterly heart breaking; in fact, all the stories are written with a restraint that adds to their emotional power.

And another, from a former creative writing tutor, Patricia Debney:

There’s so much sex in it, Maria! And so much nylon underwear!

This was in response to my comments about the fates conspiring against me for the book launch at the University of Kent. There was wind, rain, and closure of the M2 due to a sink hole appearing in the central reservation. People were cancelling; it was doubtful whether I could get there, since all the M2 traffic had been diverted past my front door. Setting up a tea trolley by the side of the A2 seemed a good idea, as that traffic was going nowhere fast.

I said to Patricia that God was punishing me for writing about my family. Her response was that it was to do with all the sex in the book.  Before you get too excited, the sex is mostly of the disappointing teenage variety, and there was a lot of nylon underwear in the ’70s.

There’s a lovely blog piece from Sonia Overall about the launch. She describes it as ‘more Tipperary tavern than literary salon’, due to the musical input of my talented brother, Jamie McCarthy, who sang and played violin as well as riffing with me about the Irish Catholic childhood that we shared. Read it here.

From a university to a shopping centre in Sittingbourne - the next event was at the Swale Arts Forum pART project, a temporary shop displaying the work of local artists and inviting people to take part in art. Until last Saturday, I had never performed at a shopping centre, and it was a totally different experience from the university. I like to mix things up a little, so the event had music as well as my story readings and guest poets, as well as an open mic. Some people came especially for the event; others walked in out of curiosity. By the end, we had a Police Community Support Officer in attendance (drawn in by Andy Wiggins‘ singing) and 94 year old Florrie who recited a poem by heart at the open mic.

And so to my favourite comment of the afternoon from an elderly woman who popped in with her shopping trolley just as I was reading. She was reacting to a reading from my story ‘A Coffee and a Smoke’, about Maura, who has one child after another – the lot of the Catholic woman in the 1950s and ’60s. She said that it was like that in her family, that her father worked away and whenever he came home, her mother ended up with another baby. And then she said:

Alan Titchmarsh writes stories like that.

Until that point, likening my poetry to that of Pam Ayres had been my least favourite comparison.

Val Tyler, Barry Fentiman-Hall, Fiona Sinclair, SM Jenkin, Maria, Mark Holihan, Andy Wiggins and Sienna-Janae Hoilhan

Val Tyler, Barry Fentiman-Hall, Fiona Sinclair, SM Jenkin, Maria, Mark Holihan, Andy Wiggins and Sienna-Janae Hoilhan

I have been adding many photos to my Friends’ Gallery – too many to share here. The group photo shows many of my friends who took part at the pART project.

The next event is at Jittermugs coffee shop, Preston St, Faversham, on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, 3.00 – 5.00 pm. I shall be signing books and reading stories on request. There will be some St Patrick’s Day goodies to eat and drink.

Florrie recites her poem at the open mic

Florrie recites her poem at the open mic

 

As Long as it Takes – is any of it true?

The first review of As Long as it Takes has been published on London Grip. Fiona Sinclair’s review is headed that she finds the stories “harrowing but hopeful”. Sounds like my life story! Seriously, though, I am delighted that Fiona has read the stories in such depth and has absolutely ‘got’ the themes of these Irish women’s lives. She ends the review:

Whilst this is a collection of short stories focusing particularly on the lives of Irish women, their struggles are in fact universal. This is a celebration of women with indomitable spirits who are devoted to their families and above all are survivors.

For those of you that don’t want just “harrowing”, there is  quite a lot of humour in these stories, but they will make you think and make you cry – or so I have been told by the first readers of the book. Read Fiona Sinclair’s full review on London Grip

I am awaiting more of the kind of questions I was asked when I read one of the stories, ‘A Tea Party’, at Seasonally Effected in Rochester: “Is that you; did that happen?” The story is in the voice of a child who tries to make sense of meeting her father’s misstress by acting it out in the form of a tea party with her toys. Was that me? I was given a tea set by an Irish uncle; it was the best present I had ever had. I did used to buy sugar mice from a sweet shop called Stebbings, and suck all the sugar until only the string tail was left. I was one of five children, like the narrator of the story. But the children in these stories are not my brothers and sisters. The parents in the stories are not my parents. My father did many things but, to my knowledge, he did not have an affair.

So, if people ask if these stories are true, I’ll say, ‘Yes, I had a Saturday job working on the sweet counter at Woolworth’s’, or ‘I did look with envy on my best friend’s Russian Dolls’, or ‘I did have a holiday romance with a boy in Ireland’, but the rest is imagination.

Here’s another for the Friends’ Gallery, my mission to get photos taken with as many of my friends as possible in 2014. This is me with Sam Pengelly, my hairdresser. I believe that a woman’s relationship with her hairdresser is an intimate one – Sam and I know quite a lot about each other. We laugh a lot together. And when I once burst into tears when Sam asked how I was, she held my hand and said, ‘I’m not just your hairdresser, I’m your friend.’ Sam more than qualifies for my Friends’ Gallery.

Maria and Sam

Maria and Sam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stories, music, coffee and cakes – events to launch As Long as it Takes

There are several events to launch my new book, As Long as it Takes. The first is in Eliot SCR, University of Kent on 12 February 2014 at 6.00 pm. Please note that this is a change from the previously advertised venue  - on the same campus, but a different college.

There is an afternoon of stories, poetry and music at the pART project, Forum shopping centre, Sittingbourne on 1 March 2014 with guest poets and musicians (see below). Also a signing at Jittermugs coffee shop where I shall be reading stories from the book on request. Further ahead, I shall be the guest of Save As Writers in Canterbury on 13 April 2014.

Details of these on the Events page.

Morning pages may not be the artist’s way

I’ve been writing morning pages for several years, using Julia Cameron’s guidelines in The Artist’s Way: write first thing in the morning; three A4 pages (though I use an A5 notebook, and three pages of that is enough for me); and whatever comes out of your head goes on to the page. Then I went to a journalling session with poet John Siddique at the Wise Words festival in Canterbury. This was a chance to get together with other writers in a coffee shop. John led the session with a short talk, then we all wrote in our journals for half an hour or so.

John’s talk turned my thinking about morning pages right around. He had followed Julia Cameron’s advice and had pages of negativity, covering the same ground over and over again. I too have notebooks mostly full of negative and angry stuff as a result of tipping anything in my head onto the page. I look back on these notebooks and wonder who this angry person is. I can do nothing with this material. It does not bring me on creatively.

John went on to talk about how he had been journalling around the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. How he journals about the roles in his life, and how well he is fulfilling them. Some of my roles are mother, wife, friend, sister, grandmother, stepmother, writer, editor etc.

John’s talk changed my thinking and my life. I got hold of the book, read it, and began using my journal in this way. No more negativity or covering old hurts again and again. I spoke to my counsellor about it, and she wondered whether the early morning negativity is to do with the bad thoughts that can invade if you are awake for long periods in the night. I have long-term sleep problems, and regularly battle with this problem. Maybe by writing first thing, these night demons are still around.

I felt angry with Julia Cameron for pushing her way as the best way. As well as the ‘write anything at all’ commandment, there are the write by hand and for three A4 pages commandments. I don’t think my writer friend with severe cerebral palsy would be able to follow this advice, as she can only write using a keyboard. Those of us with fatigue can perhaps write a page, or half a page on bad days.

I have been using my journal in the way suggested by John Siddique for four months now, and there has been a big change in my mental health. This may be coincidental, but I don’t think so.

I recommend The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s mainly offered as a business book, but has a lot of significance for everyone. It has changed the way I interact with people too.

I have added a lot more non-fiction to my reading, and find many of these books spark my creativity in a way that reading other people’s poetry and fiction may not. For example Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. You can watch her TED talk on the power of vulnerability here.

Maybe it’s the recovering Catholic in me – I don’t do dogma. Julia Cameron’s way is not this artist’s way. 

 

Gearing up for a book launch and more from the Friends’ Gallery

As Long as it Takes has now been uploaded to the printers, and I await the first shipment of books. Meanwhile, I’ve been organising some events to promote the book, beginning with the launch at the University of Kent on Wednesday 12 February (see Events page). This is where the stories began, when I was studying for an MA in creative writing, with a pair of stories linked by character and theme. My tutor Patricia Debney said that I had something that could run, and sure enough these two stories grew into fourteen, creating a community of Irish migrant women living in England and their daughters. Each of the stories stands alone, but as Susan Wicks writes:

…characters recur and situations illuminate one another, so that when we read them together we find ourselves inside the story of a whole community of Irish immigrants, suddenly faced, as the protagonists are, with the tellingly displaced expectations and longings of a generation of women and their legacy to the generations that succeeded them.

As well as the Kent University launch, there are further events at the Swale Arts Forum pART shop, Sittingbourne at 2.00 p.m. on 1 March and at the Jolly Sailor, Canterbury, at 6.30 p.m. on Sunday 13 April, where I shall be the guest of Save As Writers. Go the Events page for more details.

Maria with Sam and Barry Fentiman-Hall

Maria and Sarah March

Not a resolution, a mission - two more pictures for my Friends’ Gallery, a mission to get photos taken with my friends in 2014. On the right, I am with newlyweds Sam and Barry Fentiman-Hall of ME4 Writers whose latest publication is City Without a Head.

To the left, I am with Sarah March, writer, Kundalini yoga teacher and sister-sheddie. I met Sarah on Facebook, and she made a suggestion that we could hold literary events in our sheds. And we did, holding two shed happenings with poetry, stories, music and films projected on the shed walls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Long as it Takes

9780992648510-Perfect-MH cropped FRONT COVER

The cover of As Long as it Takes can now be revealed! I love it. Image by Maggie Drury and design by Mark Holihan. The book can now be ordered from Cultured Llama, and will be dispatched soon after publication.

Here’s some info about the book:

As Long as it Takes gives voice to the lost generation of Irish women who sailed to England to look for work in the middle of the twentieth century. Maura Flaherty and her daughters struggle with identity, belonging, love, sexuality and grief – and dilemmas such as whether to like punk or Elvis.

With no concessions to nostalgia or sentimentality, this deeply moving and beautifully written book, by a second-generation Irish writer, tells the interwoven stories of an immigrant family. Maria C. McCarthy skilfully weaves the historical and cultural significance of Anglo-Irish relations into a half-century of family life.

Dark, impeccably minimalistic stories about immigrant Irish mothers and their English-born daughters. The mothers belong to the ‘lost generation’ of Irish workers who emigrated to England in the middle of the last century. They call Ireland ‘home’ and inflict old-fashioned Catholic morals on their English daughters growing up in a more liberated time and culture. Out of this tension comes a series of stories written from the perspective of several women family members, transcending these painful differences with their courageous humour and absolute refusal to look away. The stories reinforce each other and create memorable echoes, reverberating in the mind long after the book is closed.

Martina Evans, author of Petrol (Anvil 2012)

Read individually, these stories might seem modest: each cuts its small piece of cloth and lays it out with truthfulness, understanding and warmth. But characters recur and situations illuminate one another, so that when we read them together we find ourselves inside the story of a whole community of Irish immigrants, suddenly faced, as the protagonists are, with the tellingly displaced expectations and longings of a generation of women and their legacy to the generations that succeeded them. Maria C. McCarthy knows how to tell this complex story, and she tells it with humanity and imagination. The thoughts, speech and actions of her characters make them intensely alive.

Susan Wicks, author of A Place to Stop (Salt 2012)

Order the book here.

Book matters, and the Friends’ Gallery begins

We are in the final stages of editing my book As Long as it Takes. This means hours poring over the manuscript for the Cultured Llama copy-editor Anne-Marie Jordan, more hours as I accept or reject her corrections, more hours for editor Bob Carling making the changes on the manuscript.

I wrote the stories over five years, and obviously changed my mind about spelling and formatting as I went along. All very tedious to get right, but I am the first person to notice errors in books, and I would not want my readers to spot any mistakes. One of the last issues is how do you format song titles, album titles and quotations from song lyrics? We have agreed on this, but it means me trying to remember which stories feature music and checking through them, rather than re-reading the full manuscript.

More enjoyable is seeing the cover image by Maggie Drury and the jacket design by Mark Holihan. I was choked with emotion when I saw the cover. How wonderful to see this moments after Mark had finished it. I suppose, in the olden days, the camera-ready artwork was sent by courier, and the author had to wait until the publisher had seen it. I won’t share it just yet, until a couple of errant commas have been added.

I can share the first photo of my Friends’ Gallery, taken after our working lunch last week. This is part of promise to get photos taken with each of my friends in 2014. Friends in the photo (left to right): me, Biscuit (who wanted to get in on the act), Maggie Drury and Anne-Marie Jordan.

Here is the recipe for the pearl barley broth that I made for lunch, which went down very well with our guests.

As Long as it Takes will be launched on 12 February at the University of Kent. More details here.

Maria, Maggie, A-MJ small

 

No resolutions, a promise instead

I’m not given to new year’s resolutions. Why add more to the to-do list, when the to-do list never gets done? Even worse, why make a do-not-do list in the darkest days of the year when its hard to deny yourself the comforts that keep you going?

I have made just one promise, and that is to have photos taken with each of my friends. When I lost my friend Karen to cancer in 2010, I discovered that I didn’t have a photo of the two of us together. Fortunately, I tracked some down, taken by an ex-boyfriend. He kindly obliged with a picture to go at the front of my poetry collection, strange fruits, which I published to raise funds for MacMillan Cancer Support in her memory. To buy a copy of the book, with all profits going to Macmillan, go to strange fruits.

I would like to have photos taken with my friends in the settings where we normally meet, doing the things we do. So, my friend Sue and I will be having lunch together; Fiona and I will be hunting for bargains in charity shops; Anne-Marie and I will be editing, stuffing envelopes, talking – we do all of those together.

To set the scene for the forthcoming photo opportunities, here is a picture of Karen and me, taken at the Sweeps Festival in Rochester in 2005. 

Karen and Maria

WordPress Themes