Writers (Just) Write, Right?

With todays’s post, I am entering ‘You Are Enough,’ a competition hosted by Positive Writer, one of the sites I visit when in need of encouragement and inspiration.

Leaps of faith?
Photo credit: Marko Pekić, Unsplash

Do you dream of writing a book? If you tell people, do they smile and give you a metaphoric pat-on-the-head? Are you brimful of stories but don’t know how to start, or believe you aren’t good enough? If so, let me tell you about my mini-breakthrough.

Just who do I think I am? I didn’t study English to degree-level. The subtleties of grammar are a mystery. I know little about sentence construction, hidden verbs, or how to structure a novel. I didn’t realise stories had ‘arcs.’ Why would anyone read what I write? I am a nobody, a fraud. I am an imposter.

But I’m an imposter with myths and legends hammering at the inside of my skull.

I’ve always enjoyed the power and play of words. I’d spend hours as a child writing stories, poems, and homemade newspapers. But I never gave serious consideration to becoming a writer. With my working-class background, a secure job and steady income were the height of ambition. I took the sensible route, studying geology and working in industry. Creative writing was pushed aside. But I still had ideas – a dormant word-volcano, eager for release. And in a dark, distant corner, a voice whispered: ‘One day. I’ll get to it one day.’

Years passed by and I wrote nothing. I didn’t think I could. Worse, I didn’t think I should. With my background and insecurities, I agreed with those who scorn: serious writing wasn’t for ‘the likes of me’. Disillusioned, trapped in an industry where ego-massaging and profit margins were all that seemed to matter, I needed connection, a real sharing of human experience. Life was empty without it. If I had a soul, it withered.

Forced to give up work for health reasons, eighteen months ago I wrote my first piece of fiction in thirty-four years. Knowing little about the art of the short story, I read any guidance I could find. I spent hours choosing the perfect word, lost days sharpening sentences. It took me two months to complete a 1,500 word story – madness. But the sense of accomplishment was the best I’ve known.

More short stories followed, but it was always a struggle. Surely it shouldn’t be this difficult? Real authors sit down with perfectly-formed sentences flowing, unstemmed, from their fingertips, don’t they? By the end of May 2019, I’d almost given up. I’d found something I loved, that made me feel alive, but I wasn’t good enough. My past career had left me hollow – now it seemed my writing skills were null, hopes for the future void.

Seven months later, change is afoot. Every morning I write, research, or scribble down new ideas before they evaporate. Every day, I learn something new that helps me improve. I have a manageable writing schedule, and I’m no longer afraid of the hard work. 

How the devil did that happen? Seeking approval, I sent a story to a critiquing service. Six agonising weeks later, I received an email from science fiction author John DeChancie. He was complimentary about my story. It was far more encouraging than I’d feared. A tiny speck of hope was born.

More recently, I enrolled in Jerry B. Jenkins’ Dreamer to Author course. Focussing on writers’ fear, it aims to encourage those with the writing dream who haven’t been able to progress. If my paradigm-shift is a measure, Jerry’s on to a winner. His inspirational advice made an enormous difference. 

A writer’s fears are well-founded: writing is a long, hard slog in a world of tough competition. The conceit is to grab that fear, smash yourself about the head with it, use it to produce the best work possible. All authors began as novices. None were born with complete sets of novels ready to print. It’s obvious. It’s logical. I knew that. But it took hearing it from a professional to apply it to myself. 

Successful authors learn their skills and continue to learn. They write and edit, edit and write. They go back, doing it again and again, in pursuit of perfection. Practice. Repeat. An orchestra wouldn’t arrive at the Royal Albert Hall expecting to give a bravura performance without rehearsal.

Buoyed by these revelations, I asked myself three questions:

– Do I have less ability than everyone else? Answer: Probably not. 

– Okay, so am I any less likely to be published? Answer: Possibly not.

– So why not try? Why not indeed?

So here I am, writing. Following a write-edit later cycle, I write without censure, without head-editing before committing words to page. Leaving the technical issues until later frees up the imagination, allowing me to start. I have a long way to go. I am as yet unpublished, but that’s okay: I’m an author-in-training. I’m being true to myself and enjoying the puzzle and the pain of the writing process. My change in mindset is the real success.

Who do I think I am? I am a writer. 

Who do you think you are?

Ask yourself those three questions and picture this: Jane Human opens your book. She reads your description of torment, putting into words how she felt but could not fathom. You have connected, time and space shrinking to nothing. You made it happen.

I believe anyone with a tale to tell can write a compelling story. We can learn the technicalities, but the passion, that soulful need to reach out and touch others? That is the foundation. That is the gift. If you’ve got that, get going. I’d love to hear how you get on.

Let The Sunshine In

There is something about the sun’s effects on my soul
that goes beyond its brightness and warmth.

I took a bit of time out on Saturday. It’s okay though, I did feel guilty about it. It’s not been long since I established a semblance of routine, one that’s not especially taxing. It didn’t seem right that I should be slacking and pretending I’d earned the weekend off. But hey, I saw a big fiery ball in the sky, recognised it as the sun, and talked myself into it.

I read for a while, sitting in the window and feeling the morning sun warm my face. Up until then I hadn’t been able to read for weeks. I couldn’t concentrate. Even in the bath, a favourite place to read, I couldn’t settle. But on Saturday morning I was calm, my thoughts quiet enough for me to enjoy it again. 

I did something else I rarely do lately, too. The cornflower coloured sky, the first real sighting of the sun for days, and the covering of frost lured me outside for longer than just the time it takes to fill the bird feeders. I live in a beautiful location. Our house is on a hill, characteristically windy and with big-sky views over farmland down to the valley. We have a nice garden with plenty of shrubs and trees for the birds and other wildlife. And we have woodland beside us. It is a fabulous place, and yet, when I’m outside, I usually cannot wait to get back to the psychological security of being indoors. I know, it sounds ridiculous.

We aren’t like a lot of other people; we don’t really care about the condition of our lawns. Aside from keeping the grass cut, we don’t do anything else. There is no weeding out of dandelions or daisies. We don’t worry if one patch of grass is a slightly different shade of perfect-lawn-green than another, or waste water and money on summertime sprinkler systems. And we certainly don’t go around murdering any poor moles that might happen to have left the odd little mountain here and there. And I like moss. Correction: I love moss.

Every since I first read Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series, I have genuinely liked moss. I don’t know the first thing about it. It hasn’t occurred to me to look it up. I just like the look of moss, the variations in colour and texture. Some mosses are dark emerald, bulging like velvet cushions, others have a rougher texture, extending tiny, shaggy, stem-like fronds. And the feel of it underfoot when left to its own devices for a time? Divine.

Life continues to thrive. We just need to remember to look for it.

Walking in the sunshine across the front lawn on Saturday morning was nothing less than blissful. A thick layer of hoar frost still covered everything, and though the sun was low, the sky was clear enough for the frost to sparkle. My feet first scrunched through the layer of frost, then seemed to sink, ever so gently, through the deep mossy rug beneath. I was an almost surreal feeling that made me smile and, for some reason, reminded me of the doors sliding open and closed on Star Trek – the original series.

But it was the sun that really got me. I sat on the (moss-covered) garden wall, closed my eyes, and looked up towards the sun. I must have looked like quite the mad-cat-woman, what with a black, faux fur, Paddington-shaped hat I’d never dare wear in public, pulled tightly over the top of a scarf that I’d wound around the top of my head to keep my ears warm. To complete the look, I’d fastened the scarf under my chin, the two, short ends sticking out at awkward angles. Fortunately, we live in sticks-ville, and not many cars pass along the lane. 

I don’t know how long I managed to sit still. Much longer than usual, in any case. I turned my face towards the sun, felt its warmth striking a contrast with my icy skin, and breathed. With my eyes closed, the light dancing flashes of red, yellow and gold behind my eye lids, I just sat and breathed. I breathed and was. I thought, now I’m present, now I’m being mindful. It seemed that all that there was, all that existed, existed only in that moment. There was only me and the sun and the incredible feeling of ‘now.’ There was no connection with the darkness of the past and no concerns about the unknowable future. It was uplifting. I felt alive and free.

I carried that feeling with me all weekend. When I went back inside on Saturday  my mind felt clean and clear. I was able to work out a new outline for the book I want to write, one that makes sense of various aspects of the plot that I’d had in mind for over a year. I spent more time outside on Sunday morning, enjoying the frost and that sunshine again. I started to write my book that afternoon, writing half of the first chapter. I can’t tell you what a stumbling-block that had previously been for me.

Most of us feel better, happier, on a sunny day. Especially after long periods of dark skies and rain as we have been experiencing in Britain lately. But there is no doubt in my mind that there is something about the sun’s effects upon us that goes beyond the facts of its brightness and warmth. Perhaps it is some ancient knowledge we hold of the life-giving properties of the sun, that without it we could not exist. There is something, for me at least, that reaches deep into that part of me which we might call the soul. It touches me and makes me feel, not human, but better than human. It reminds me that I am only a part of this wonderful and complicated ecosystem of ours. We are all creatures of the light.

One Giant Leap for the Crazy Kind

It turns out that my little experiment of moving around slowly, writing slowly, breathing slowly, trying to slow down my racing thoughts, worked well as a way to calm myself over the last week. A little too well perhaps; a lot of time was spent napping. To be fair, after the mad mental exhaustion of the previous week, I should have known to expect a bit of a dip. Hell, I must be one of the few people capable of burnout just by having more than one thought in my head. Mind you, I did have to sit up.

To be honest, it’s taken me a few weeks to become comfortable with a regular routine involving more than one activity – filling up the bird feeders and a wander around the garden, a bit of morning meditation and then a couple of hours writing . Even then, the routine only occupies me until lunchtime. After that, if I need to, either because I’m feeling anxious or I just can’t keep my eyes open, I officially allow myself to go with the flow of whatever I can handle; reading, playing a game, watching a film, curling up and taking that nap…But at least in the mornings, imagining that I’m a human going to work, I’ve made sure that I stick to my plan. I might even dare to say I’ve tricked myself into believing it’s boosted my self-esteem. 

I don’t think many people would be impressed by my progress. To all intents and purposes I still appear to be just sitting in the same chair, doing not very much of anything. I’m sure Jonny Apron, recently home from working away, would prefer it if I cleaned the kitchen floor. But others might recognise the difficulty I’ve been having adjusting to the change. 

For a long time I had no routine in my life at all. Having things to do now, even though they are my own goals and have not been imposed upon me by others, still makes me feel anxious. I know it makes no sense but from the moment I get up my old heart starts banging away in my chest, I find I’m holding my breath and my mind goes blank. I feel like giving up and going back to bed. But I haven’t given up, not yet anyway. 

No matter what anyone might say, I am giving myself a gentle little pat on the back for finally putting a bit of order back into my life. For a couple of months or so I’ve been writing something everyday, but it’s only over the last couple of weeks that I’ve been able to do so without leaving my other morning activities by the wayside. That is definitely an achievement for me.  I am learning to do what I’ve said I’ll do, even if only to myself. If I can’t do that, no one will ever be able to rely on me, and I will never be of any use. Not in the way I want to be. It takes me a step closer to becoming the person I want to be.

When it comes to my problem leaving the house though, no progress has been made. This is partly because I feel such a sense of urgency (that pesky anxiety causing problems again) to write that I feel guilty if I’m not doing it when I’ve said I would. I’m still not comfortable enough with the routine, or trusting enough of myself to be able to handle too much at once. Going out involves a lot of preparation, takes up too much time, and is fraught with dangers; noises bother me, crowds disorientate me, being looked at worries me, I’m afraid I’ll say or do something stupid.  

My list of excuses for not going out reaches to the sky, and it is only going to get more difficult if I don’t get a grip. I know how important human contact is, particularly when people find safety and shared experience amongst others. And even though I’m not exactly breaking down the door to get out there and actually join in with the world, that is the aim. But come on, the weather has been completely miserable, hasn’t it? Here we’ve woken up daily to pouring rain and gusty winds, or else a dreary, dripping suspicious-looking mist. You have to admit, it hasn’t exactly  been conducive to getting out there and embracing a tree.

Dear people, if you, or someone you know, is suffering from anxiety, depression or another mental health issue, if you recognise the feelings that I’ve described here, then take heart; things can change, be it ever so slowly. Each gain, no matter how minor it may seem to the outside world, should be a reason for celebration. It take an enormous amount of energy. No one has the right to denigrate your progress, and there is no reason why you should compare yourself to others. Most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself if progress takes longer than you’d like. I’m beginning to realise that my ‘illness’ is an integral part of me, something that I need to learn to work with, not against.  One small step…let’s go take it.

Operation Seagull: Okay, So Where’s The Bleedin’ Map?

What do you do when you have a plan, you know exactly what needs to be done, but your mind and body won’t let you? Do tasks that seem easy to others become for you a thing of dread, sending your thoughts whirling, Dervish-style, and your body begging for breath? Perhaps other people don’t understand, think that you’re lazy. Maybe you have a constant battle on your hands to justify yourself and be accepted as you are. A lot has been said about improving mental health services in the NHS and shifting public perceptions of sufferers. Let me know if you have seen any evidence of change, because I certainly haven’t. 

It has taken me a week to write this. A week! It wouldn’t be so bad, but I had planned to work on a short story and force myself to take a trip out of the house. I warn you now: all I have managed to produce is a post about not writing a post. 

I haven’t done much over the last five years. I haven’t been able to work, I’ve isolated myself from any friends that might have still put with me, and I rarely leave the house. There is barely a hint of routine in my life. But that’s going to change, right? I’ve confronted a lot of issues over the last couple of years, gaining more insight into why I have become the quivering and lazy little person that I am. It is time to move on. The plan is great; the execution has me in a right state.

Tuesday morning, with a new story to work on, the old brain became overly enthusiastic. I was bombarded with ideas: ideas to add to my story, ideas for new stories, things to add to my (unstarted) book. There were ideas about decluttering the house, about painting old furniture, and all kinds of other nonsense that I usually have absolutely no interest in. And there are so many books that I want to read, subjects I want to learn more about, and what about learning to play that piano that’s downstairs? 

Each time I began to make progress, another idea would come bombing in. My mind felt like a sample in a scanning electron microscope. It was one big stream of consciousness mash-up in there. And I had to write them all down, the ideas, every last one. My short-term memory is atrocious. Even during the time it takes to fire up a document, thoughts evaporate, like the bird that disappears just as you reach for the binoculars. So I scribbled them all down. But I needed to categorise them, and ended up using three notebooks, often having all three open in front of me at the same time. No work on the story could be done at all, so quickly were new thoughts occurring. I wrote hundreds, possibly thousands of words, achieving nothing. I was thundering through the time, hours disappearing without me noticing. The irony, eh? In my efforts to make the most of the years left to me, I have succeeded only in speeding up the clock.

It went on for days; mind racing, increased heart-rate, no sleep, skin and flesh physically agitated. I became confused over which notebook to use for a particular idea, my handwriting got bigger and bigger and more and more illegible. I even had difficulty deciding which colour pen to use. I was misplacing things, walking into things, forgetting to eat. I was turning back into that clumsy 8-year old whose favourite auntie called her ‘Wobbly’ instead of Robbie. 

By 19:30 hrs last night I was exhausted. I couldn’t think at all. And then I remembered: I had planned to meditate (mindfulness) that morning. Funnily enough, I was going to start a of block of guided meditations entitled ‘Focus.’ What was that I said about irony? That was when the sun rose and I realised that all week I had been following my thoughts, no matter how irrelevant to the moment, unable to concentrate on anything and creating mental and physical anxiety. Had I learnt nothing from meditating over the last four years? Had I not realised I could be using mindfulness techniques every moment of the day? Idiot. Mind you, that realisation didn’t stop me wondering, as I bumbled off to bed, if HTML has changed much since that course I attended back in ‘97, when I still thought the Internet wouldn’t catch on. And it didn’t stop me wondering, as I yanked the duvet up to my chin, how hard it would be to transform the duvet cover in to a pair of curtains.

I was going to scrap all this. It seems unlikely anyone would interested in how I managed to achieve a neurotic nothing over the last week. But one of the reasons for being here in Blogsville in the first place is to connect with others who suffer from anxiety disorders, PTSD and depression. It is a place for me to document progress in dealing with anxiety and learning to get out into the world again, something to give me the impetus to push on. The last weeks have been difficult and erratic, but I haven’t given up as I usually do. I still have the plan.

I’ve knocked a hole through the wall. I no longer feel that I have no right to write, that I’m a time-wasting imposter. But this new zeal, this sense of urgency, has me wanting to sort out other areas of my life. I’m desperate to get going but I am completely overwhelmed and suffering from a severe case of concentrated lack of concentration. Trying to look at it from the outside, the way I have been is a reminder that I need to take my time, learn to walk not run, and not to be too hard on myself if I’m not yet ready to save the world. What I need are practical ways to manage the anxiety that accompanies this fresh enthusiasm. Firstly, I need to stop bloody well thinking that I need to write down every damned thought that flies around my head. 

Today, the aim is to move slowly; walk slowly, write slowly, try to think slowly. Perhaps I can trick my mind into believing all is well, as being forced to smile can cheer me up, in spite of myself. I will not allow myself to go chasing after thoughts, or adding more and more ideas to my lengthening lists. And I am absolutely going to limit myself to one notebook. Well, maybe two. And  perhaps just the odd scrap of paper…

Preparing for take off…

Hello and welcome!

My name is Robbie. I’m a middle-aged woman (there – I’ve admitted it) who, after a lifetime of believing that the only way to survive in this perplexing world was to become comfortably numb (thank you Pink Floyd), has finally decided to place a boot in the appropriate place and make a stab at really living.

Writing this blog is part of my attempt to re-engage, part of my recovery from a position of isolated, star-gazing slothery (and I don’t care if that isn’t a word – it jolly well ought to be) to one of, well…who knows? It could take a while; at the moment I struggle to leave the house.

I know that there are others out there just like me, people with similar experiences, hopes and fears. I hope that we can connect. I hope that I will learn from you. Being here is a twofold thing – to help myself of course, but also to move in the direction of being able to help others.

I may talk about dealing with my anxiety disorder, perhaps sharing some of my background. The wildlife and nature around my home (Aberdeenshire) are likely to feature. I plan to write about books, TV, news, encounters with strangers…anything that moves me or spawns an idea about the human condition. I’ve recently been able to focus on creative writing again, so I may even share some of that. One thing is certain: there could well be a great deal of complaining or a few mad ramblings. I won’t apologise – we all spend too much time hiding and I have realised that the only way I will find peace of mind is to give myself permission to be me. 

I hope that you will join me as I document my progress. Please feel free to comment, or offer advice, particularly when I’m in a seriously flapping mood and need the calming influence of being told: ‘Get a grip!’