Category: Wise Words

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.

When is it right to write? When is it right to share?

In the early years of my writing life, which began in 2000, a year into major life changes due to illness, a friend suggested that I should write about the experience. Maybe a magazine article; people might be interested. At the time I was writing poems full of self-pity and anguish. I couldn’t physically write for long, and the thought of a long article mining my pain and difficulties was beyond me. More than that, I wasn’t ready to write it. When you’re in the maelstrom it’s enough to cling on to the wreckage, to survive, without processing what’s going on and turning it into art.

Some eight years into the illness, my then partner, now husband, set up a website for me, an earlier version of this one, and I started blogging about living with chronic fatigue syndrome. There was a lot reaction to the posts, not all of them welcome. Let’s just say that I am allergic to offers of miracle cures, and if one more person suggests a drop of lavender on my pillow as a cure to the sleep problems I have endured for 14 years… There were also snide comments on how I seemed to be doing a lot for someone who is supposedly ill, as if I were making it up. I don’t need to justify or explain, but whilst it may appear that I am doing a lot, I work in small chunks of time, often only 20 minutes a day, and take rest in between.

When my site was updated about a year ago I decided to ditch the chronic fatigue page, to make the site more about my poetry and stories, and blogging on whatever took my fancy. Living with chronic fatigue syndrome has only come up once, when I wrote a post on living through the harder days.

14 years after my friend’s suggestion to write an article, I wrote the script for a talk I gave to Kent Writing and Wellbeing Network. A member of the group looked it over, and thought it was publishable, so I pitched it to a couple of magazines. It was taken up by Writing in Education, the journal of the National Association of Writing in Education, and published in Spring 2014.

Here is an extract:

It was a time of great loss – of work, health, relationships, financially and most of all a loss of place in the world. I had defined myself by my work, particularly during the years that my marriage was not fulfilling me, and that was gone.

There was a paring down of friendships. Some had liked the Maria who danced at the front when we went to gigs; they could not cope with who I had become, and neither could I cope with having lively, chatty people around me. Visits and phone calls exhausted me. My voice was weak, and even holding a phone was too tiring.

One of the greatest losses was that of words. I couldn’t read for long, or watch a film without losing concentration or falling asleep. I struggled for the right words to describe things I saw – everyday words.

It felt risky, particularly exposing the rifts between me, members of my family and close friends from whom I decided to separate during my illness. I took shelter in the fact that none of them were likely to read the article or hear me speak on the subject.

Maria prepares for her talk: ‘Low Energy High Creativity: Discovering Writing through Illness’ in the yurt at A Few Wise Words

In April 2014, I gave a talk at the Few Wise Words festival in Canterbury. The angle was how discovering writing has helped me to survive the enormous changes in my life as a result of my illness, and how, without exaggerating, writing saved my life. The audience was invited to ask questions, to share their own experiences and to engage in writing exercises. By revealing ourselves we make ourselves vulnerable, and my story liberated others to share theirs.

As the talk ended, a queue formed in front of the small dais where I sat. I felt like some kind of guru as people revealed their own experiences of illness and family difficulties. The most poignant was a woman who asked if writing would help her terminally ill daughter-in-law. She had so much anger, I was told, and was struggling to express it.

Sharing this kind of thing comes with responsibilities, to the people around me affected by my illness, by my decisions to separate from family and friends. If I had written too soon, I would have been full of blame, and I am not blameless. I wrote letters, told people just what I thought of them and why I didn’t want to see them. I was not tactful. I discovered that most people would prefer not to be told ‘the truth’ as I saw it. There was a time when I felt ashamed of those letters. In my defence, I was chronically sleep-deprived: 18 months of sleeping no more than 3 or 4 hours a day – it sends you crazy; you can’t tell the difference between waking and dreams; I was verging on mania. Someone who had been through mental health difficulties said to me, ‘Those letters saved your life.’ That’s probably true. I do, however, accept responsibility for the hurt they caused. Apologies were sometimes as unwelcome as the letters. For many, things are better left unsaid. I can understand that, but for me leaving things unsaid, unwritten, means illness and living an inauthentic life. But what I have learned is: you don’t have to share what you write; the act of writing is enough in itself.

Back to the queue of people waiting to talk to me after the Few Wise Words event, there was a responsibility for me to listen, to empathise, but not offer advice. My way through was messy, unplanned. My way may not be another person’s way. Who knows if the terminally ill daughter-in-law would find writing helped her deal with her anger? All I could say was that writing is not for everyone, but if she did write, she might want to decide what would happen to her journal after she died. The mother-in-law could offer to do as the woman wished with it, to destroy it, if that’s what she wanted. The writer must be free to write without awareness of a reader.

There is also a responsibility to myself, to be authentic in my writing, whether I share it or not, and to protect myself from others’ reactions to my story. To be empathetic, but not to listen too long and take on the emotional baggage of other people’s stories. To recognise that I need to protect my health, my limited energy, to repel those that offer miracle cures. To remember those things that help me and those things that don’t. And to keep writing.

Wordsworth described poetry as ’emotion recalled in tranquility’; the same goes for writing an article, preparing a talk, sharing experiences. Written too early, shared too early, the anger and blame of my letters and poems showed through and hurt others. 15 years on, experience is filtered through self-knowledge and seeing things from other people’s viewpoints. There are still some people I would not like to read the article I wrote; nonetheless, I had it published. Here is a writing prompt from the article:

I would like to write about…

But I am afraid to because…

Nevertheless I shall…

 

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’.

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