Category: Resolutions

Bring your own tent? Why I’m taking a break from the literary world

Three months ago, overwhelmed by many things, I resolved to take a break from public readings. I had got into a habit of saying yes to every invitation to read, perform and organise literary events, and felt obliged to go along and support others in their artistic endeavours. I had become jaded with it all, and while some invitations to read were beautifully hosted, the last straw was when I was invited to read at an outdoor event. I had kept the date free, which was on a bank holiday weekend. Given my health problems, a ten to twenty minute spot in the afternoon meant that I had to keep the whole day free, resting before and afterwards.

A few days before, I checked with the person who had invited me to read – the organising committee had changed the time of the reading to much later in the afternoon, without telling me, and two reading spots had become one. He then said I could bring my tent along in the morning, set it up, and sit there all afternoon alongside my books. I made it clear that I had been invited to do this reading and expected tent, table, chair and PA system to be made available to me, and that I would only be there for the reading. I was grumpy throughout the afternoon, and though I did deliver a reading (alongside another grumpy poet who had been similarly treated), I didn’t enjoy it and wondered why I had turned up at all.

Filling up journals is the way to go

Filling up journals is the way to go

So I stopped readings altogether, and also held back on submitting my writing to magazines and e-zines. After winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award in the summer, I hadn’t been able to place a thing. Rejection after humbling rejection arrived. The high of publication and awards is short-lived, and only leaves me craving more, so I reminded myself of why I began writing. As a way of dealing with a life-changing and devastating illness. So I have gone back to writing as nurturing, sharing my words mostly with my journal, only attending writing events that add to my own wellbeing.

I am learning to not feel guilty about declining or ignoring invitations to others’ literary events. Facebook is a demon for this – I find it easier to ignore a notification telling me I have 15 event invitations rather than to pick through them, responding with apologies and explanations.

After a while comes the temptation to start it all again – in fact, I have had new ideas for adding more into my literary and organising life. This is old stuff for me: over-commitment, getting excited by new projects without regard to the consequences to my health. I have to remind myself that the break from it all is doing me good, whilst not being an absolutist. I am the child of an alcoholic – we tend to have an all or nothing approach. I have made a small submission for publication this month, and shall wait to see if it is accepted. I have also agreed to review a new poetry book, which is something I do rarely, and I am looking forward to doing that.

Although I have enough material now for a second collection of poetry, I am holding back on planning publication, and working instead on a collaboration with an artist. We have no funding for this, nor any goals or end in mind; we are just exchanging work-in-progress by snail mail and seeing what happens.

If you are interested in writing and wellbeing and live in the Canterbury area, there are poetry workshops with Vicky Field and journalling sessions with Canterbury laureate John Siddique starting in January with Wise Words. Read their latest newsletter here. Many events are free.

Read my article: Low energy high creativity – discovering writing through chronic illness, originally published in Writing in Education, 62, Spring 2014.

Not just for January: creative resolutions, commitments, manifestos and planning tools

New year’s resolutions: unrealistic promises to yourself made to be broken, or a way to kickstart your plans for the year? I gave up on them a few years ago. The dark days of January are no time for donning the hair shirt of deprivation. But I do use planning tools, and make commitments to my creative life throughout the year.

A list of writing commitments is pinned to the noticeboard next to my desk. I don’t update these very often, but they do serve as a reminder of such things as:

I shall not share my writing too soon

I shall write what I want to, not what others ask of me

I shall help others with their writing, but not so I don’t have the energy for my own work

I shall write every day

The last of these is no longer relevant for me, as it was tied to Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way telling me to do this, and I no longer follow her advice. See my previous post on this. I have encouraged others to write commitments to their creative life, and have often adopted others’ commitments when they have been shared in group exercises. One person’s, to read one book at a time, helped me to get through the growing pile of books started and abandoned in favour of another book. I just did this for a summer, but seem to have slipped back into my old ways. But that’s OK: it’s a commitment I can pick up at another time if the book pile begins to feel more like homework than pleasure.

Some people use manifestos for their work. A definition, taken from the website SoulPancake:

Manifesto: a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives.

Go to the link to read others’ writing manifestos, and add your own: SoulPancake

In addition to my commitments, I mind map writing plans and pin them to my noticeboard. I have old ones going back several years pinned behind the current one, and it’s good to sometimes look back and see what I have achieved. I refer to the current one if I feel stuck for what to work on, and it might remind me, for instance, that I have tagged draft poems in old notebooks that need to go on to the computer (I always draft by hand). The seemingly dull act of typing out the poems gets the creative juices flowing and working on screen allows me to cut and paste, change line breaks and fiddle around to my heart’s content.

DIY Pathway to PubI also use mind maps for working with others, for instance in planning towards publication of the latest Cultured Llama book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris. Mind maps are a great way to take notes and then share them with others (some say that mind maps are personal and can’t be understood by others). Here’s one that I prepared earlier.

For those that prefer a ready-made planner, there is a great one on the Urban Writers blog. They will also send you prompts and challenges, as well as details of their urban and rural writing retreats,  if you sign up to their mailing list.

As someone with limited energy, I subscribe to Sustainably Creative. Michael Nobbs, an artist, blogger and tea drinker, also has a chronic illness, and offers a daily podcast, ‘One Thing a Day’, on how to move your creative life forward using small steps. He often invites members to join in online sessions, and offers tools to work without becoming exhausted. One tip I have picked up from Michael is working with a timer (mine is a mechanical one, topped by a gingerbread man). Though, I do tend to ignore the timer when it rings, it does remind me that I may be pushing myself too far. I have reset the timer twice in order to continue writing this post! So I shall bring it to a close before I get exhausted.

I am adding to my writing commitments this January: I shall spend more time on my own writing than editing others’ writing. Let’s see how that goes.

 

Fail better

As it’s approaching the end of the year, a time for reflection and hope for the new year (never got that last bit – how can the change of a date mean a change in the world?), I’m taking time to remember those epiphanies that came after the ‘shouldn’t have done that’ realisations. And thinking about how we can learn to ‘fail better’.

Some twenty years ago, I phoned my mother after our cat had gone missing. I was hoping for some words of comfort, but what I heard was, ‘You shouldn’t have let him out at night’. The very last time I spoke to her, after several years of estrangement, she called to tell me that I was a bad mother. My daughter had left home after a horrible row, which was mostly to do with my boyfriend, who had just moved in to our house. We were both hurting terribly, my daughter and I, and my mother chose that time to point out all the things that I had done wrong. Some of this, according to her, was letting alcoholics into my life, into my daughters’ lives.

The boyfriend was a recovering alcoholic. He had many faults, but excessive drinking was not currently one of them.

What is was about, with my mother, re the missing cat and the men in my life, was pointing out that things were all my fault, and implicit was that this is how I am, that there is no capacity to learn or to change.

There are two areas of my life that I am focusing on in this blog post on failing better – work and men.

Never be a slave to any job or any person

I have had some horrible jobs in my time. Washing up in the kitchens of the Grandstand at Epsom race course was one of them. Asked to wash shelves and shelves of plates, stacked floor to ceiling, the day before the race meeting, I lifted off the top plate of the pile to discover that all those below had been stacked dirty at the end of the last race meeting, the remains of the last meals they had held still clinging to them.

That job was only for a few days. I stayed because I had a work ethic, I’d been taught to see a job through. And I wanted the money to buy records and clothes. But there were other jobs where I stayed too long, used and abused. The last of these, my last full-time job, ruined my health. I knew it was dreadful, I knew that I wasn’t being looked after by my employers (the board of trustees of a mental health charity – many of whom had severe mental health problems themselves), but I had been trained from childhood to look after other people and forget about my own needs.  The client group had needs greater than mine – until I became one of them.

Lesson learned: never be a slave to any job or any person. If it’s not right for you, get out. Since that time, I’ve got into other abusive situations workwise, including as a volunteer, and it has taken me some time to realise it’s not right for me. Patterns can be hard to shift. But I have got out in the end. As the Beckett quote goes:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Moderation in everything – don’t get involved with drinking men

My mother was right. I do have an attraction towards men who drink. The men who came after my first marriage broke up all ‘liked a drink’. They could be exciting, tremendous fun. They were also a nightmare. Even the recovering alcoholic, so damaged by his past drinking, and with a need to control his environment to make him feel safe. This included controlling me – wanting me to be in touch with him all the time by text; berating me for going out with female friends; accusing me of affairs with male friends. See above re lessons learned about abusive work situations – If it’s not right for you, get out. He left, clearing my house of most of the furniture, as he’d insisted that I get rid of my stuff when he moved in. As I sat there on one of the remaining chairs, without a TV to watch, with my eldest daughter barely speaking to me, I knew that I had failed big time. That I shouldn’t have let him charm his way (bully his way) into my life. But, boy, was I glad that I’d got him to leave.

An epiphany came with sitting in the Rochester Cathedral Tearooms with two male friends. There I was with two intelligent, interesting men who had chosen a cafe over a pub for lunch. I thought, ‘what have I been doing with those drinkers?’

Lesson learned: don’t get involved with drinking men, even those who have stopped drinking. I’d failed with the recovering alcoholic, but I had the courage to try again, and found a man, now my husband, who only drinks in moderation. His idea of a binge is the three pints he had on his stag night.

Learn something from every ‘shouldn’t have done that’

I’ve learned something from even the worst situations. Every difficult work situation has given me a new skill. Working on the sweet counter in Woolworth’s in the ’70s gave me terrific mental arithmetic skills, still sharp after 40 years. I’ve picked up marketing and budgeting skills from working in charities, where you had to do a bit of everything. Even in bad relationships, I’ve had good sex. And fun, for a while, when joy had been lacking in my life for a long time. Even the recovering alcoholic got me to reassess my relationship with my late father and my brother, both drinking men. He helped me to see a disease, not a character failing or a lifestyle choice.

As for my mother, the lessons learned are it’s best for me to keep away from her, not to allow that negativity, that blame  for things I have done wrong, into my life. I take responsibility for my own shortcomings as a mother and try to offer support without criticism to my daughters. If I get this wrong sometimes, I certainly shan’t be telling myself that I ‘shouldn’t have done that’, just remember what Beckett said:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Mythbusting: changing the stories we tell ourselves

Breaking news: I don’t have a poor sense of direction; I quite like having my photograph taken. This is news indeed, as I am letting go of two myths about myself that I have believed for most of my life.

When I was 17, I got lost in Norwich. I went into a shop and, when I came out, could not remember from which direction I had walked there, and so where to meet my family. I must have found them, regained by bearings. I was just disoriented for a moment, and that one moment became a myth I believed for the next 37 years. I have worried about travelling, about finding my way when I am driving. I have planned my routes with maps and timetables, handwritten instructions annotated with buildings of note, monuments, parks, how many left turnings to count before the one I needed. All because I believed I had a terrible sense of direction, and the worst thing in the world would be to lose my way.

I returned to Norwich this year (for the first time since the great getting-lost of 1977), and noticed that it is a confusing city of one-way streets, side roads and alleyways. When I was 17, I was in a strange place and temporarily lost my way; I do not have a poor sense of direction at all.

My thinking has also been changed about having my photograph taken. When I was a child, Ted Gale, family photographer, would visit once a year and group us on the sofa like the Simpsons. I hated it so much that I once hid behind the rabbit’s cage in the garden  so I wouldn’t be in the photo. I was found, picked up and placed on the sofa and told to ‘watch the birdie’ and ‘say cheese’. They could drag a child to the sofa, but they could not make her smile. My hunched shoulders and scowl were captured for posterity in a picture too horrible to reproduce here.

Those occasions when photos were obligatory – first Holy Communion, graduation, weddings and so on –  became endurance tests. I vetted the results, found fault with my image, hid photos (they were too expensive to destroy).

So why did I, a photo-refusenik, embark on my Friends’ Gallery, a project to have my photo taken with as many friends as possible in 2014?  What’s more, I am delighted with the results. Could it be that I like having my photo taken?

Perhaps this is about control. I was forced to have my photo taken as a child, dressed in frocks that felt uncomfrotable, told to sit there, stand like that, to look happy, to smile. It was a false image, the family gathered together as one smiling, functioning unit. The reality was that my father was rarely in the same room as the rest of us. He was either working, travelling to or from work, in the pub or the bookies. My mother was mostly angry at him, clashing around in the kitchen, making meals that he often didn’t come home to eat, shouting at her children when she was really angry at my dad.

The prints on the wall framed family lies – the way my mother would have liked us to be; the image she wanted to show the world. No wonder I was a photo-refusenik; I wanted no part in those charades. No wonder this continued into adulthood – hating the formal pose, the posing on demand.

The photos for my Friends’ Gallery are at my own volition, and the friends in them having mostly been willing participants. Some have actually asked if they could be included. Only two have not been keen, one only agreeing to it as long as I do not share the photo online. I respect her point of view – the loss of control when your picture appears on Facebook, the issues over who owns those photos. Perhaps it is true, that tale about your soul being captured in a photograph, it no longer belonging to you.

Jenni and Maria

Jenni and Maria

As for me, I am happy to have a record of my friendships, an audit of the people I count as friends right now. Some are new, some go back more than 30 years. I can reflect on the stories of how we came to know one another and the things I value about them. There’s Anna, who I met at Swale Sings community choir and who likes cats and poetry as I do. There are my friends I met through writing: Anne-Marie, Maggie, Sarah, Patricia and Fiona, the last of whom I first met at the launch of my poetry book strange fruits, and has become my co-bargain-hunter on charity shopping trips . And there’s Jenni, who I first met at Thames Polytechnic in 1978. She was carrying a placard saying ‘We Need a Nursery’, having just returned from a protest march. We look similar in this photo – have we grown to look alike, or did we see something that day we met in 1978 that drew us together?

I don’t look for faults in recent photos. I used to comment that I looked old, wrinkly, fat. The ones I like best are funny, offbeat, and my favourite of all is one where the old me would point out my double chin (all right, I did notice it!). But the new me sees the joy in my expression and that of my daughter, Rachel. We are sitting on a sofa, holding hands, and in between us is my new granddaughter Caitlin, just 3 weeks old.  A new generation of sofa photos, but no-one will be forced into best clothes, to smile against their will (or not), or to look at any offending photos framed on the wall for the rest of their lives.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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