Survival Techniques

Trying out new ways of getting through

The hump

The hump is always there.

It doesn’t matter how much I want to write. It doesn’t matter how much I love the process of writing. It doesn’t matter how hungry I’ve been to get to my desk and get pen to paper, finger tips to keys. Every time I want to write, I have to heave the baggage of my intentions over the hump first.

The hump is a hybrid creature. It’s a living, breathing thing that changes shape, size and consistency depending on my particular mood. Sometimes it’s a laziness, a desire to stay in bed that little bit longer rather than pull myself out of sleep and onto the page. Sometimes it’s a stack of More Important Things demanding my attention and insisting that I Must Complete These Tasks First before I can spare the twenty minutes of head-space I allow myself six days a week for writing.

But sometimes it’s something less solid, less obvious than these ploys to stay away from the page. When the hump is about choosing a ten-minute lie-in over an extra ten minutes with a pen in hand, I can judge the height, width and texture of what I’m doing battle with. When it’s a Papier-Mache mound of bills, emails and to-do lists, I can get my gait right and hurdle over its hollow shell. It’s when the hump is transparent that I have real problems, when it in fact denies its very existence.

Like when I watch yet another episode of The X-Files rather than picking up that novel I’ve been dying to read for months. Or when it’s composed of Big Questions about Who I Am and Why Am I Doing This. At its most insidious, the hump is made up of the crazy springs and snares of justification, reasonable explanations as to Why I Shouldn’t Write Today. It’s particularly nasty then. Brush up against the rust and jagged edges and justification is infectious, will run riot across you.

This time, the hump was perfectionism. I don’t like this post. Something in the imagery is not working for me. So I’ve sat on it for weeks. And let its draft-y presence stop me writing anything else.

Recognising that there is a hump, always a hump, has been the thing that’s starting to make a real difference. Now I know getting myself to the waiting page is a similar process to cycling up hill. I know when I crest that summit, the view from the top and the free-wheeling down the other side will not only make it all worthwhile, the rush will make me feel so alive I won’t even remember the slog to get to the top.

But that doesn’t stop the lactic acid making my muscles moan and the little demon on my shoulder insist that I really don’t need to put myself through this, so why don’t I just stop? Certain days, that demon barely gets a whisper in before I’m at the top, over the hump and letting gravity take the reins. Other days, he’s in full voice before I’ve even gotten to the base. Either way, when I’m really out on my bike, I’ve never once gotten off and pushed the bike back home. Nah, that promise, that distant memory of what’s over the other side is enough to keep my teeth gritted and my legs peddling.

I don’t even have to peddle to get over the writing hump. Just got to grit those teeth, keep breathing and pick up that pen. That’s it. Hump surmounted. Time to let the words free-wheel across the page.

The fallows

I’ve been floundering. It’s taken me a while to notice what’s going on, and I’ve still not managed to get my head above the waves far enough to see for certain where I am, but at least now I’ve noticed the waves. The reason it’s taken me a while to notice is because I’ve kept writing. Pretty much every day, I leave some kind of stain across a page, be it ink, tears or sweat. Something gets put down and recorded.

So it didn’t immediately sink in that I’m treading water, occasionally going under before bobbing up again. Previously, trouble has come raging in, a cavalry of panic and anxiety storming in under a banner of blank pages and sleeplessness. The trickle of words I’ve been leaving in my wake, the calm, steady practice of writing a little every day – this doesn’t look or feel like trouble. But I have been treading water rather than swimming, diving, moving through the ups and downs of writing. And now I’m getting tired.

There were some tell-tale signs. I’ve been doing a lot of ‘writing up’ rather than writing on recently, focusing on getting my scrawls typed up so I can share. Except now they’re all typed up and I still haven’t shared. Then the small part of the day I carve out for sitting at my desk and just getting words down has gradually become shorter and shorter. Somehow unloading the dishwasher or doing my (very short) hair expand into tasks that chisel away at those few minutes I try to keep for writing. And then there’s my blog, perched on my shoulder, singing out that I haven’t posted anything.

I admit, I started to panic last week when the truth finally reached me. Things had been unfolding at such a fluid pace that discovering I’d lost forward momentum was a shock. My first response, of course, was guilt. It’s because I’m not dedicated enough, because I’m not sacrificing enough to the writing gods – or worse, it’s because I’ve committed the sin of thinking that I had anything worthwhile to write in the first place.

Then comes the Voice of Truth, which tells me in loud ringing tones that real writers don’t have these problems, so just give the fuck up, because you are clearly not a writer. Chalk this one up as another one of your misadventures, your failed enthusiasm. Go back to the day job and embrace that as all you can possibly be.

Luckily, I’ve had it up to here with that fucking noise. That Voice of Truth, with its shoulds and don’ts has had all the attention from me it’s ever going to get. It took me to some very boring places. These days, I’d always take actually being in the water – albeit floundering – over standing on a barren shore looking longingly at the waves.

I can’t stop the Voice having its say, but I can try and get some other voices to do battle with it. Reading other writers talk about their writing cycles has been hugely helpful. Seems that what I’m experiencing at the moment is a fallow, a time of rest after a time of plenty. It’s a time to take stock, read and think, perhaps edit and plot, perhaps work on something else before returning to the main project.

Hence there’s no panic, no anxiety – I’m recuperating, pooling my resources to take them in the next direction. It makes perfect sense. I’ve reached something close to 30,000 words of what will hopefully turn into my first novel. That’s a lot of work and words and ideas. Of course I need to pause, take a breath and survey the horizons I’m creating before I move on. And actually, the words that I’ve eeked out in the fallows are full of potential, my pen seems to be discovering a new aesthetic for me all by itself.

So I’m going to rest in the fallows for a while, get my strength again, let the ideas break over me and refresh these hard-working senses. No panic, no guilt, and definitely no bloody shoulds.

Write like you’re already dead

I’ve crashed smack into one of writing’s realities. A couple of people I know in the real world have looked at this blog. Which in itself is ok, I guess, although if I’m honest, part of me curls up into a ball and prays for non-existence each time I realise this. But then, even worse, some people have mentioned it to me, in real life, face to face.

I think the only other time I’ve wanted the ground to swallow me up that much was after I got so nervous at a work Christmas do, I got horrendously drunk and threw up in a plant pot in the hotel lobby, before being poured into a cab and sent home. At my boss’s expense.

Going into work the next day was not easy.

Knowing that people I know have read this blog is on a par with that.

But why? Why is it so awful to know you’re being read and being read by people you know? Aren’t I writing to be read? And why the hell else would I link this blog to Twitter if I didn’t want people to see what I’m doing?

These are questions I’m having to really think hard about. Because actually, I’m not sure being read is the main purpose behind my writing. In fact, it’s almost an accidental by-product of what it is I’m doing. I started these posts to help me write regularly, to try and write myself into a new life, and to maybe put something into the world that I wanted there but couldn’t find. For once in my life, it was all about me, not about my audience or what other people wanted.

Writing for myself and keeping it relatively anonymous gave me a freedom that was sorely missing elsewhere. It allowed me to say fuck it, what do you want to say, what do you want read, what do you want to think? And as I did so, I unbuttoned the straight-jacket I’d put on my life. It let me see how dead my world had become because I was letting the word ‘should’ and its evil twin ‘ought’ dictate everything I did. Killing off desire, suffocating even the most meagre dream. What a hygienic empty-headed vessel I aspired to be. What a willing malleable citizen I wanted to become – pristine, sensible, and utterly sane – everything, in fact, that I am not.

So I write what I know, or write what I need to see in the world, to keep writing myself into existence, to give myself legitimacy and a voice and a pulse. Which is fantastic. Until people you know start to read your stuff. Because now they can see my process of falling apart and putting myself together, again and again and again.

But then if that’s how it is for me, then why shouldn’t I write about my reality? And how much do people really read or care anyway?

I want to be honest. Not through bland statement of fact, but by using the lies of fiction to capture truths (that’s not my line by the way, I think I’ve nicked that from Doris Lessing or Iris Murdoch). But it’s so much easier to be honest when you don’t have to live with it, when you can hide behind words and anonymity. When your cover’s blown, it’s so tempting to tidy up your thoughts and your language and tone down your topics, keep things sane and safe and in line with the person you want to be day-to-day, because you know there’s a chance real life is going to throw your words back at you.

But how dead would that be? Patrolling your thoughts, policing your prose, stepping back from the brink because you should, because you ought to, because maybe . . . Before you know it, you’re buttoning up that straight-jacket again, settling in for maddeningly comfortable life without the discomfort of creativity.

Years ago, I came across a quote from Nadine Gordimer, which I’ve probably mentioned before because it’s stuck with me. She was talking about writing in South Africa under apartheid, where she continually caused controversy for exposing the flaws in the anti-apartheid movement alongside her relentless critique of apartheid itself. Just because the anti-apartheid cause was good didn’t make them saints and Gordimer’s commitment to representing what she saw as honestly as possible made her unpopular among the very people she was supporting. But challenging the temptation of sainthood, excoriating the polished surface and hygienic narrative of the ‘good guys’ was just as important for keeping people ‘good’ as crying out against the inhumanity of apartheid.

To write this honestly, Gordimer said that you have to write like you’re already dead, to put yourself beyond embarrassment. You have to pretend that you’ve passed beyond the realm of friends and family, and so forget that you’re capable of embarrassing or bringing shame on them as well as yourself. It’s only by writing like you’ve got nothing to lose that you’ll ever be able to write anything worth a damn.

I’m not Nadine Gordimer. I’m not battling apartheid. I’m just trying not to curl up into silence – or even worse, disappear into pretty prose. So here I am, putting myself out there again, learning to write like I’m already dead.

Less time, more writing?

My latest experiment in writing is now underway, and so far it’s been yielding up some surprising results. Yep, after years of working freelance or taking on limited time contracts in the hopes that these jobs would give me enough money and time to write, I’ve now got a full-time job.

Freelancing and contracts might have given me some control over my time, but in terms of giving me time to write, it was a manifest failure. Worrying about how I was going afford food and shelter if I didn’t get paid on time and having to hunt for new work every three months ate up any mental space that the money – when it did come in – might have given me. It was exhausting. I was exhausted. And then despite all that energy spent worrying and working and not writing, I lost everything anyway. Time for a new plan.

The latest plan started back in August, when I was lucky enough to win a grant to on an Arvon writing retreat. I cannot recommend them highly enough – it was a life-changing week. One of the main things I learnt from spending time with 15 other writers and actually getting to live with myself as a writer for a week was that routine is writing’s best friend. I sort of knew this anyway, as a professional copywriter and researcher, but I’d never really taken it seriously in terms of my creative work. Which told me that I wasn’t treating my creative work with the same respect as I was my other writing. Which is crazy when you consider that I’d been trying to arrange my whole life around the idea that writing was the most important thing for me. Suddenly, it was obvious why it all went tits up before – I wasn’t actually making time for my writing because I wasn’t taking it seriously.

It’s strange how different taking it seriously feels from what I thought it would feel like. It’s as simple as setting aside some time each day to write. When I say some time, that can be anything from 25 minutes through to an afternoon. The key thing is to set the time aside in the first place and then actually use that time for writing and nothing else. Make writing part of the routine.

I had visions of what it would feel like to be a serious writer – very intense, all-consuming, anxiety ridden and sleepless. In other words, I thought it would be difficult.

And yes, it is difficult, but not in the ways I expected. The difficultly is pleasurable, absorbing in a good way, demanding and exhilarating at the same time. But all that comes from something as straightforward as sitting down at my desk once a day and getting the words on the page. Some days they stream out of the pen as if they were already written and were just waiting to emerge. Other days, the page is littered with as a many crossings out as actual words. But the ink is there. The work is happening. And it is such a rush.

The full time job has been the other part of embracing routine for serious writing. No more freelancing, no more contracts, no more working odd hours and all hours. Strictly 9-5, with (a heart-breaking) 24 days of holiday a year.

I’ve got to admit, it’s been a month and it’s chaffing a little. I can’t just saunter off for a long lunch or do my shopping on a weekday when everyone else is at work. I can’t escape to the beach for a rejuvenating wander when work is getting too intense. People expect me to show up and stay put for set times every working day. It’s quite an adjustment.

It seems contradictory that having less time to myself would mean I have more time to write, but after all these years, the writing is happening. In fact, a large chunk of a novel has happened since August. Just in the moments I make before I head into work. So I guess so far, the routine is freeing up the head space and the time for the writing to happen.

I always thought creativity and chaos went together, but maybe the routine is what give us the anchor we need to go and explore the chaos through our creativity. As for strolling on the beach at lunch, I got to write this instead, a mental saunter in my lunch break. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The music and the noise

I’ve got music back. I can’t believe I ever let it slip out of my life. But I did, I lost it for years.

How did I lose it in the first place? That is a tricky one, but ultimately I cared too much about what other people thought. It started with not feeling entitled to like certain bands or kinds of music, despite being drawn to them, because I wasn’t as ‘dedicated’ or as fucked up as some of the other people who were into the same stuff. Then at some point in my early twenties, a certain kind of connoisseurship started to creep into the way people talked about music. You had to have such and such an album, you couldn’t possibly claim to like so and so if you’d never heard their more obscure influences. And you definitely could not own, let alone listen to, the dreaded ‘popular’ stuff. Heard it on the radio? Throw it in the bin. Way too commercial.

Moving in with a music nerd did not help. He never set out to make me feel uncomfortable, but I did. He had the ‘right’ CD collection, which was about four times as large as mine. He was the one people talked to music about. He was the one who got to choose the tunes when people were over. I just gave up, bowed to what I presumed was his superior knowledge and taste. I even stopped playing guitar. Which breaks my heart to think about now, because none of this really came explicitly from him. It was just there, this sense that he was entitled to music and I wasn’t.

It got the point where I wouldn’t put music on even when I was asked to. One evening really sticks in my head. I worked up the courage – seriously, courage – to put an album on, only to have him and a friend ask ‘what is this shit?’ This wasn’t a typical response from him, but that pretty much put me off playing tunes for people for years. (It was Ladyhawke, in case you’re interested – I’m not ashamed anymore!)

All of this also coincided with the rise of iTunes and mp3s and Spotify and the decimation of record stores. I’ve always been a browser, be it in shops or through a collection, choosing things on whims rather than knowing precisely what I want to buy or listen to. Two things happened with the emergence of iTunes et al. First, I felt deeply disconnected and disadvantaged when it came to finding and choosing music. Having it all organised for me in a library or online store left me – and still leaves me – at a loss. I need the randomness of the physical, the visual and sensual information to help me make choices. Shuffle does nothing for me either. I cannot explain it, but there’s something clinical, hygienic, cold, about having music neatly arranged on computer that leaves me feeling disempowered. At the same time, people were mocking those of us who were paying for music through official channels rather than digging it out of online crevices. I felt simultaneously overwhelmed, disempowered and like I was being conned.

Then my iTunes flipped out and deleted my entire library – purchased tunes and my entire CD collection which I’d diligently uploaded. All gone. For no apparent reason. Nowhere to be found.

I gave up. By this point, it was such a struggle to get to music that I’d forgotten why I liked it in the first place. I even stopped listening to my CDs. It either felt like music was a money-making scheme or something that I was not capable of appreciating because I had neither the knowledge nor taste to equip me for it.

I played classical piano for 8 years. I taught myself guitar. I’d been avidly into all kinds of music since I was eleven. And by twenty-eight, I felt like I wasn’t entitled to even listen to music. How did it get to this? Because I stopped listening to the music and instead listened to all the chatter about it. The harder it became for me to access my music, the louder the chatter got. Until I only heard the chatter and nothing else.

But when my world turned upside down, when I realised the damage I’d done to my entire life by listening to the chatter of others rather than to my own instincts, music was there to catch me.

In the darkest weeks after my eleven year relationship ended, I kept the lights and radio on when I went to bed. I couldn’t face the dark or the silence, not least because sleep was pretty elusive. One morning, I woke up 4am, already sobbing, just as ‘Pacifier’ by Catfish and the Bottlemen came on. And it caught me. ‘You know I try to fail, but you just don’t know how it feels to lose something you never had and never will.’ It caught me when I was falling into another pit. Because someone else knew what that pit looked like.

I got my ears back after that. Suddenly I could hear what I was experiencing in lyrics and tunes everywhere. I wasn’t listening to it theoretically anymore. I got it. I wasn’t worrying about taste or expertise or the latest release. I got it. And suddenly I remembered why I loved music before opinions and technology got in the way. Or more accurately, I remembered how to love music.

It feels like finding a forgotten piece of myself.

Fuck the chatter. And fuck the constantly updating, buggy technology that interferes with me getting to my collection. The grin on my face as I dance alone like a lunatic with my headphones on. The goosebumps I get when my writing and the music I’m listening to come together. The peace that comes after improvising on guitar or piano. That’s what it’s about. Everything else is just noise.

Peace and writing

I haven’t been writing. Or to be precise, I’ve been producing scraps, disconnected fragments that work on their own but that won’t lead anywhere. There’s a quality of concentration that’s left me recently, about the same time that the irrepressible urge to get things out of me once and for all faded into something fainter and more manageable. At the same time, the spits and flecks of ink I get on to the page are lingering on moments that rapidly become too unbearable to tarry with: I can only consider these aching instances for so long before I feel like I am sadistically unpicking my own peace of mind. I keep coming back to the question ‘What is the good of poking this memory with a pointed stick?’

It’s frustrating, because writing brings with it a calmness that has been getting me through and it’s a form of calm that I haven’t found anywhere else. I get a clarity of concentration, a focus that can’t be replicated even if you’re trying – meditation, yoga, prayer, they can’t offer me the immersive solace that a good writing session can for me. I can turn over terrible, horrific events, images, ideas and feel their impact deeply, fully, to the point that I cannot bear it (an idea which I am increasingly fascinated by – bearing the unbearable) and at the same time, let these thoughts and emotions flow through me to create something. Creating out of pain, producing something from the void, sculpting the darkness.

It’s a method of acceptance, I suppose, but it’s not like any other form I’ve tried. Partly because it’s not about making a peace or a pact with the darkness. It’s more like I’m mobilising it in a different way, deliberately stirring it so that I can mould it to fit a purpose that’s half way between its agenda and my own. Because it does have an agenda; to eat away at my wellbeing, to creep around the edges of my life and then gently squeeze until I wake up one day to realise my world has once again become a tiny sliver of what it once was. Acceptance, or recognising that shadows are part of my day to day are key for starting to push back and open up my world again – but I struggle with the notion of acceptance as making peace.

Peace is an incredibly appealing idea. Being entirely at rest with yourself. Being completely alive to this moment now and not letting the moments before or to come press in on the pleasure of this instant. Being able to sleep and eat and be spontaneous without guilt or fear. And I know this, because I’ve had and have moments of peace, perhaps more recently that I’ve ever had before. But this is where I hit a paradox.

I get these moments dotted across my week, usually unexpected, vivid and often illuminating. But the greatest peace I experience comes when I am writing, and in the immediate aftermath of writing. It’s almost like fantastic sex, except the quality of the adrenalin is different. It’s not peace like any other; it’s absorption rather than acceptance, it’s giving yourself over entirely to what is passing through you rather than embracing and pulling things towards you. And I need that pointed stick to crack the crust of acceptance and stir things into motion in order to let things pass through me and beyond me onto the page. Which means my favourite form of peace comes from my pain.

Which can make things pretty unbearable, and the unbearable can leave you voiceless, silent, spitting fragments as your larynx splinters under the pressure.

I’ve got to figure out a way to live with this, because I’m not going to give up my pointed stick.

Starting to start over

I’ve officially started over. I’m in a new city, in a new house, with two new jobs and a bundle of freelance work. It is terrifying and exhilarating and also very, very ordinary.

Having lost a home and had an awful experience with my last job, it feels incredibly good to be working again and being out of my parents’ home, able to support myself again. The moment I moved in to my new teeny-tiny room in a beautiful, welcoming shared home, a huge weight of anxiety lifted and a level of self-respect that I hadn’t realised I had lost returned in a rush. Starting my new jobs felt positive – challenging but rewarding having responsibility again and great to have some structure to my time again. And both in my new place and in my new jobs, I’ve been really lucky to meet interesting and supportive people.

The initial rush of starting over was quickly tempered by the daunting reality I’m facing. I’ve moved to a city I know slightly, and I’ve been lucky enough to move in with a friend of a friend, so things are a little familiar rather than completely strange and new. I also know several people in the city already, although I’ve never simply ‘hung out’ with them because my life was somewhere else. So I have a little head start in making a life here. But once the boxes are unpacked and the madness of moving fades, you realise you actually have to build a life in this place, for yourself, by yourself. You have to make things happen, otherwise all you’re going to do is shuffle between home and work. You have to go out there and make a world for yourself.

That’s a huge task to face alone. Even with friends around you, you still have to do it alone. I literally don’t really know how to start and have kind of had to get comfortable with the idea that I just need to put myself in certain places and then let life go from there. Joining classes and a sports club have been my initial forays, and actually talking to people when I’m there rather than just shuffling in and out. It’s been a push, but each time I’ve felt better.

My housemate has been amazing; we’ve been out a couple of times and she’s invited me out to various parties to meet her friends. It’s intense meeting so many new people in such a short time – it can simultaneously feel like you’ve come so far that you’re creating a whole new life and that you’ve isolated yourself so much that you’re surrounded by strangers.

I’ve also been trying to figure out how to develop the friendships I have already in this city, turning occasional socialising into hanging out. It’s really hard, because on the one hand, you’re potentially asking a lot of people – just because you want to spend more time with people, it doesn’t mean they want to spend more time with you! And I’m also conscious I’m currently learning to be alone after eleven years of always having someone there by my side – and that can mean I am asking too much of people, as I look for ways to not be alone at moments when in fact I should be.

It’s an intense learning process; how to build a life, where the boundaries are between you and others, how to live life alone rather than always thinking for two. And it’s peppered with moments of very cruel lucidity, where you see your current life with your old eyes. For instance, thinking about the fact I’ve crammed the remnants of what was a loving household into a tiny room in a shared home leaves me feeling winded with shock. But the key thing is that it’s shock at the scale of the change, rather than regret. I wasn’t happy in my old life. It wasn’t working. It fell apart. As huge as starting over is, it is better than the alternative.

Unravelling and re-threading

I’m not a fan of similes and forced metaphors. Things get very cheesy very quickly. But the ones that occur in daily life are pretty startling. I don’t if it means you can learn something profound from them, or whether the only similes and metaphors that work are the ones that give you pause for thought. The ones that snap you out of the flow of daily life and make you aware of something bigger going on behind your day, behind your thoughts.

I’ve made a lot of claims about going through difficult times on this relatively young blog. So I apologise for the blatant moaning. But I guess it’s not surprising that things continue to be difficult – and even get worse – because once certain events happen in your life, they set off a chain that has to play itself out for a while. That said, in the shit-storm that seems to have been my world for the past couple of years, the last two weeks were an extra-special low. The last vestiges of the life I had finally unravelled. And I unravelled with them.

I’m not entirely sure how I’ve gotten from then to now. It’s hazy. But between now and then, somehow (I really don’t know how), I’ve managed to produce two of the most beautiful tapestries I’ve done in my short career as a stitcher. I actually don’t know how I did them, but they’re there. They exist and they sparkle with light, the very thing that has been almost completely absent from the past two weeks.

It struck me today, the first day I could say I’ve been properly present for a while, that this is one of those metaphors that happens in life but would be awful in fiction. I unravelled and got through it by stitching. And I made two of the best tapestries I’ve done so far. Can’t take more from this than what it is, but it made me stop and think.

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Birth of an egg

The shock of the yellow,

the tug of the chalazae unfurling

and dropping away from me like a stone,

under the pressure of uninvited breath.

 

A baptism in lutein-stained albumen

forecloses convention.

Candle me now and see only space;

My destiny has slipped beyond me.

 

Hollowed, I am free-range.

Collector’s Humour

‘Ink and skin, human remains and preserved specimen, museum object and trace of subjective memory: all of these descriptions cohere around and within the Wellcome tattooed skins’

Gemma Angel, ‘A Movement of the Soul’

 

Snake eyes

one pip on each die

the dog throw

 

A cur’s tag

inked on leathery-bark

to mark a crawled life

 

Even after death,

the gambler’s loss

is the collector’s gain

 

Skin inside scales

eyes forever open

in the dark body of a snake-skin box.