Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Spring Cleaning!

I have been decluttering like crazy over the past week. There has been so much dust flying around that I keep sneezing! I'm actually quite tidy nowadays (a contrast to my teenage years of a floor covered in clothes and magazines), but I had amassed piles of stuff that I didn't need. I was fed up with sleeping in a room that would pelt me with books if a large plane flew overhead.

Some of the stuff I wasn't ready to get rid of until now — folders of university notes, ancient short story drafts, random pots of Play-Doh... Other stuff was useful, I convinced myself. My back issues of Mslexia were bound to come in handy. Except that a lot of the information in old magazines is out of date. That is the nature of magazines. So I went through all 5 box files of Mslexia and tore out useful articles, interviews and fiction. It all fitted into a single folder — with space left for future cullings from Mslexia.

Books were another issue. I'm never going to be someone who owns just 10 books, but I forced myself to admit that I would probably never re-read many of my books. These are books I've enjoyed, but which are nowhere near being favourites. There are also loads of books I will probably read once and pass along. Most of these were bought in charity shops or as part of a special offer, or just picked up on impulse in the supermarket. I may not even read some of them. So what's the point in clogging up my precious shelf space with books I don't cherish?

This was surprisingly difficult to face up to, but easy once I got going. If I do get an urge to re-read any of the books I'm chucking, I can buy (and store) them on Kindle. In theory, I could replace all of my older classics for free on Kindle, but most of these ate favourites and worth the shelf space. I wouldn't be without my copy of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, complete with my AS notes in the margins.

I think spring has put me in the mood for simplifying my life and whittling down my possessions. I love red lipstick, but I have several different shades and don't need to buy more. In fact, buying more stuff in general costs far too much space, let alone money. I'm taking stock and focusing on the things that give me pleasure — reading books by authors I love, writing, hanging out with my friends and their daughters (the eldest of whom was delighted with my random pots of Play-Doh!), walking my dog, drawing, baking. There isn't much time or space left over for anything else.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Mental Illness Isn't the End of the World — But Sometimes it Feels Like it Is

It's no secret that I've been struggling lately. I stress about everything at the best of times, so the past few months have had me worrying about everything from whether I'll be able to write more soon to whether I'll still be living with my parents when I'm 50. Suffice to say my current situation is less than ideal!

But I have to remind myself that it's not the worst situation. I may struggle with my finances, but I'm not going to be left to starve anytime soon. I have a safe place to live and I've got my dog, Murray Monster. Sure, there are times when I'm so overwhelmed by my problems that it's hard to breathe, but I have some good things in my life. I have a foundation.

I think a key aspect of dealing with any problem is to stop beating yourself up. Blaming yourself for your situation isn't taking responsibility — it's as helpful as blaming your parents, your school bullies or the world in general, i.e. not at all, even if there is a grain of truth in it. All any of us can do is our best, whatever constraints and challenges we face. There's no point panicking whenever we fall short of our expectations. All we can do is go from here — this very moment — and try our best.

Being able to see this perspective is evidence that my mental health is improving. Not long ago, I felt that my life was hopeless and I was useless and a burden on my family and friends. That's one of the most horrible things about mental illness, depression in particular: it steals any sense of time passing and life changing. It feels like you're hiking up a mountain and can only see the slope you're trying to scale. Everything else is covered in fog. When things improve a little, you can look down and see where you've been but the top of your slope is still covered in mist. You don't know whether it ends, let alone if you can make it. As mental health continues to improve, you see more of the mountain above you. You can see the top of the slope you're climbing, maybe even the next slope or ones beyond. Hopefully, one day, you will be able to see the top of the mountain.

I think writing a novel is also like this: you may have a vague sense of the whole, but you can only write it step by step. You start out with a map, but once you're climbing the mountain you lose track and take detours, slopes blur into one another... I suppose it all comes down to faith. You need to keep faith that the mountain is there and that you can conquer it. 

Of course, that's easier said than done when you're surrounded by fog and can't see your hand in front of your face! You might also reach the top to find — as I did with my. First attempt at a novel — that you were climbing a foothill and the mountain is beyond. What do you do: give up or keep climbing?

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Hardest Thing is Also the Easiest

I often wonder why I keep going. Most days, I feel like I am trudging through a deep bog and it is too foggy to see where I'm going or if the bog ever ends. Why do I keep setting goals, let alone trying to achieve them? Why do I keep writing?

Everything seems so damn hard a lot of the time that I find myself thinking I'd be happier if I never set goals. That way, there can be no disappointments. Anything good that happens will be a bonus. But I can't. Part of me will always want to be A Writer (as in, "proper" writer who makes a living from writing, no matter how frugal) and part of me will always write.

Following your dreams is hard. Working towards goals is hard. Keeping faith that it's better than giving up is bloody hard. I suppose the trick is to gain what satisfaction and enjoyment you can from the monotony, the banality of trying to change your life. Sometimes that will be finishing a short story, other times it will be watching an episode of Friends that I've already seen (conservative estimate) 50 times while I plug away at my novel-in-progress.

Full disclosure: I've had a stressful month and have been ill for the past week, so I'm not in the most positive frame of mind. In fact, this is the second time I've been ill this year and it's left me with about 9 days when I've had a relatively clear head. My energy runs low at the best of times, so all hope of tackling my New Year's resolutions head on has sunk into the bog I mentioned at the start of this post. Suffice to say, I feel pretty crap at the moment.

However, I read something today that made me feel a little better: time passes anyway.

It's so obvious that I've never really thought about it before, but whether or not you're working towards a goal, the time you would have spent on it passes anyway. Writing when I might never be successful seems like a waste of time, but the time I spend writing passes anyway. As does the time I should have spent writing. The real waste of time is not working towards your goals.

Am I really going to look back in 10+ years and wish I'd watched Friends more? Or that I should have spent more time worrying about the prospect of failure? Yes, it's bloody hard to keep writing (and exercising and working on being less anxious), but it's also easy to keep going because there is no other option. Time passes anyway.

So I will keep adding words to my novel and I will keep doing the little tasks that I hope will add up into something big, something good. Even if I waste the rest of every day feeling awful, I have marked some progress. I will keep celebrating these tiny milestones because it's better than the alternative. Time passes anyway, so I might as well use it to be the best I can be.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Featured on Thresholds

I entered a feature competition run by Thresholds short story blog last year, not expecting anything to happen. It was an exercise to see if I could write an engaging piece about a writer's work. I knew I wouldn't win and, indeed, I didn't make the longlist. But I got an email from the editor saying that she would like to publish my feature on Thresholds. It appeared today: Subtle Brilliance.

It discusses The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and how it has influenced my own writing. Not only is it one of my favourite short stories, but it lingers in my mind in a way that no other story does. I used to think it lingered merely because of its content and Jackson's writing skill, but I came to realise it also had a lot of writing lessons to impart to me.

The main lesson, which I touch upon in the Thresholds piece, is that I tend to psychoanalyse my characters and explain my story. I need to learn to trust the reader to make the connections. As I was reminded in Writing Short Stories , which I discussed in the post I wrote last week, short story readers are intelligent and insightful. They don't need to have their hand held. By not trusting my readers, I'm not trusting my writing.

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year, Fresh Inspiration

The less said about the end of last year, the better; suffice to say that I'm glad 2014 is over. I started 2015 on a positive note, partly thanks to a fabulous new book, Writing Short Stories by Courttia Newland and Tania Hershman. It has helped me to rekindle my passion for short stories - both reading and writing them.

I was excited when I first learnt that Tania Hershman was working on a book about short stories, because her first collection, The White Road, opened my eyes to new possibilities. It included short-short stories or flash fiction, which I had never read before, and the stories were all inspired by New Scientist articles. I became a fan straight away and was similarly impressed by Tania's next collection, My Mother Was an Upright Piano. I had high expectations, despite not being familiar with Courttia Newland's work, and Writing Short Stories surpassed them.

The best thing about the book is its focus on individualism. Some 'how to write' books are very prescriptive and try to persuade writers to follow certain formulae or guidelines. This may be helpful if your goal is to get a grounding in writing commercial fiction, but I'm interested in stories that simply aren't found in women's magazines. I don't mean this as a criticism to those stories - on the contrary, I wish I could write them well since the financial reward is greater than that received for being published in literary journals - they just aren't for me. Writing Short Stories encourages writers to experiment and push boundaries. It teaches us to tread our own path.

It also teaches us how to do this effectively: experimentation for the sake of being obscure or seeming 'high brow' is not something to aim for. Instead, it's essential to know when clarity is needed, how ambiguity can be useful and what effect any aspect of the story has on its whole. The authors of Writing Short Stories tackle every angle of, um, writing short stories. They use illuminating examples and explain everything clearly, illustrating their points with examples from their own experiences.

Writing Short Stories is a Writers' and Artists' Companion, so it follows their format of containing a generous midsection (much like myself!) stuffed full of advice from other short story writers. The advice encompasses a range of topics, from setting to paranoia and absence to epiphany. It adds richness to what was already an invaluable book.

I was writing a little more than I had been before I  read the book, but it has lifted me out of my dry spell.  I am inspired again and I hope the year ahead will be full of short story successes - both completing and publishing.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Easing The Struggle

I've been having a difficult time over the past few months. An episode of worse depression than usual coincided with some external difficulties, which means I haven't been coping well and my writing (including blogging) has been neglected. I'm feeling a little better today and am trying to help myself, but it's very hard when depression leaves me feeling unmotivated, useless and hopeless for much of the time.

One thing I've learnt over the years is that sometimes you just have to ride with depression and do what you can. So I changed one situation that was making things more difficult than usual: the family desktop not connecting to the internet and being generally awkward to use. This is partly because my dog, Murray, tends to misbehave when I'm on the desktop and picks up/chews stuff to get my attention. When I'm the only person home, which I am on weekdays, it's difficult to work for longer than an hour on the desktop. this is not conducive to writing.

What was the solution? I bought a laptop. It's not very expensive and I don't have to pay for it for a year, so I'm hoping the advantages of having it will outweigh the disadvantages of adding to my debt. I consider it an investment in myself and my writing career. Now I just have to write more and try to earn the cost of the laptop...

Another aspect of doing what I'm able to do is to write what I can when I can, even if it's just a line or two at a time. I wish I could write for hours at a time, but it's not happening at the moment. I'm also reading a lot, which helps to inspire me and reminds me that I'm better than I have been in the past, when depression stole even the pleasure I gained from reading.

This post feels a bit pointless and self-obsessed, so I hope it might help anyone else suffering from depression in some small way. I know that it helps sometimes just to be reminded that you're not alone.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

I Have a Published Story!

I have mentioned that I sold my first story this summer, but I was rather coy about it because my superstitious streak told me not to jinx it. So now it's in print, I can shout it from the rooftops! The story is called Fighting On Home Turf and it's in the second issue of Confingo magazine, which you can buy here.

I am, of course, thrilled to be published. Although I started submitting stories regularly earlier this year, I have been writing and honing my craft for years, so being published is encouraging and a reward for my hard work. I hope it's the first of many pieces of my writing to be published, but for now I'm proud of this small achievement.