Learning New Things

To truly value the hard times, we have to approach life as if there are lessons to learn

In a recent group post my fatigue coach, Pamela Rose asked us to take the Tony Robbins quiz on our “driving force” – linked here if you are interested. I am a little sceptical of Robbins style and some of his philosophies around health. But I will say at surface value he got me right. My drive is for growth, always learning and looking to grow and get better. The idea of considering is these driving forces is to ensure that we are approaching our lives with them still in mind, even if fatigue is putting up barriers.

I think that there is often barriers in my life. As I recently wrote there are ways to overcome these: no more tears and of course I do apply all of these methods to try and live creatively. But I also think the situations themselves can teach us things in life.

Time for some quiet rest

Right now life is telling me I have to concentrate on my family. My son’s not coping at school so his needs are much higher. It is also reminding me that life has easier and harder times. Sometimes the hard seems to drag on. However just as to live with a chronic health condition you have to come to a place of acceptance, in these tougher times you need to accept they are just that.

I may be around less or doing less creative work for a while as I get through this difficult time. But I am committing to my 50 day challenge so I take the best care of myself. I am committing to creative moments and artist dates still to feed thia need. I am still committing to trying to read as a good book is a happy place even in dark times.

I will update the blog next month with how it is all going with hopes that soon I will be able to write again. In the meantime, write right now if you can.

Half Year Reset

It’s that time of year when I reflect on what I can improve

There is something about the arbitrary passage of time that is on my mind recently. I am nearing forty and trying to have no regrets of time lost. But now it is June I feel the need to reset my goals.

I often use the Gretchen Rubin method of having 21 in 2021 etc which I have in my journal but this year I decided to revisit my vision board. This is a practice I learnt that I had achieved the aims of a spa trip, some sister time and have certainly tried to get out in nature. I had a recent Artist Date exploring the azaleas which gave me a lot of joy. And I have been trying to find ways to look after me eventhough my son is having a tricky time.

The inconvenient truth about life is sometimes one thing goes right then, another goes wrong. I don’t mean even just the big stuff. Detailed plans seem to me the stuff of wild dreams. I have written about my disdain for plans before not to discourage planning but to try and reassure anyone I know, life doesn’t work like that.

So this year for my reset I wanted to be more realistic. The algorithm sent me a message (like it’s the from universe but more likely just the sort of wellness content I am consuming). I am following a 50 day refresh led by Smilin Aislinn on youtube. Watching her videos just made me smile, she’s not worried if your journey looks completely different which clearly as a nearly-40 year old non-model I have in no way a similar life. But I am inspired to try and be consistent. Keep up habits that help with both my energy and creativity.

If you are inspired to anchor each day with healthy habits, she recommends setting both your goal and intention behind them. And most importantly not to be a perfectionist about it. There is no need to go back and revisit if you miss one. I missed off get up early from the list I made because that one is a given for me. These were the habits I created to support me:

Simple Habits to Help Energy and Creativity

Habit one: Morning pages. Everyday three pages as soon as you wake up. Or do them imperfectly like me. My intention is to have a space to be creative, reduce stress by journalling my worries and find me time at the beginning of everyday

Habit two: Green juice and lots of veggies on top of my normal food. My intention is to add to my energy by being healthy but not restrictive. I have tried a number of wellness fads and this one has stuck. If I am more consistent hopefully it will support healthy recovery.

Habit three: Afternoon meditation. I can’t always sleep in the afternoon but I find taking a restful moment each day for 20 minutes will give me a better chance of getting through my day even with fatigue. If you’re bad at meditation, I’ve written my guide for fidgets.

Habit four: Three gentle exercise days and three yoga days. I know that doing very short and gentle workouts makes me feel better as long as I only do it to my level. The appreciation I have now of being able to do this bit more having been living with fatigue for nearly 18 months makes it so valuable to my sense that I am recovering. Again being consistent hopefully will also see some positive improvement in my endurance as the weeks go on.

Habit five: Ten minutes reading daily. You may see I have recently posted some reviews and I am enjoying reading books again within my limits. I am still making my way through 40 books before 40 from my to be read (TBR) pile. Reading will always be my greatest inspiration and it’s a joy to build up my concentration despite the fatigue.

Habit six: Skincare. I am guilty of buying lots of skincare products and letting them sit looking me each day. Taking a bit extra time to use the jade roller and various potions is adding that bit of self-care at the beginning and end of each day. It’s my small way to remind myself to look after myself even in the toughest of times.

REVIEW: Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

An amazing debut by Nell Stevens an MFA student who decides to adventure to the Falklands to write. The subtitle “Chasing my novel to the end of the world” describes her desperate attempt to find her novel. The true account is interspersed with stories and scenes from her novel that she almost resolves.

From arrival at the farm, it’s clear that the unreality of the experience is bothering her “ I disarrange the objects, as though I tossed them down without much thought. Still, somehow, the table feels like a set, the sunroom like a stage, and the Island beyond like a gaping, vacant auditorium.” The simile holds throughout this book as we slip between memoir and fiction the author is becoming the subject as her she “learns to be alone.”

Whilst Stevens is grappling with her subject she is stalking around the island trying to capture her characters. She becomes obsessive about the links between Bleak House and her story “I start to see the novel as a meaningful guide to my experience in the Falklands and my own work of writing: I make connections, see patterns…” She describes the dissension into obsession in psychological terms as the “Magical Thinking” like accepting your horoscope as uniquely personal. Strangely one of the other pieces of media she has on the island is the film Eat, Pray, Love. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert encourages us to look for synchronicities. As I have described in my review of her book, she believes ideas flit away if we don’t grab them. Perhaps like the BU hoodie that floats from her washing line, Nell is left with the idea of the aloneness as her subject, everything else she thought drifting away.

I think this is a brilliant book for writers. As well as the tips from her renowned MFA professor, she shares insights into her writing process throughout. Her experience sounds like a lot of creative’s dream – retreating from the world to solely concentrate on working. But her reality is both a cautionary tale and a reflection of what we need to create. In writing it is not just writing a “set number of words”or working completely alone. Her relationship with her work is more complex than that.

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

In addition to the ongoing battle with Dickens, she is arguing too with Hemingway and his experience of starvation in Paris. Put simply she has a weight limit on her luggage and does not have enough to eat. I found this frustrating to read, it seemed like the naivety she admits to at the end takes her a while to realise and at times you feel her youth. Though she has clearly lived a busy and accomplished life, she makes me feel protective when she is battling with this notion of hunger as a helpmate to her art. As you may expect of this introspective novel, there are times she becomes self-involved, like covering her mirror so she doesn’t see how bushy her eyebrows become. In the end though, we are interested in how she has developed this work more than her actual experience: though there are wonderful moments like when she helps herd cows and I laughed audibly when the caracara is pursuing her.

I would highly recommend this book for wannabe writers like me. These are some hard lessons she learns and there is a lot we can take away from them.

Overcome Dialogue Dilemmas

Some of my characters have been really chatty recently and it can be a problem…

I am back at it with my longest novel to date and really writing dialogue in sections where the prose gets a bit heavy. There are rules to writing dialogue which I find a bit tricky. Like you want to give them colloquium language but you don’t want to keep spelling out “Alright” or “I don’t know what to say” even if they are the tics of these characters. You want dialogue that actually means something to the story which is why I think writing in close third person can be tricky as you often think when a person might say. Add in that your main character is introspective and introverted, your chances of getting them to speak out loud like a character in a novel.

Have ever noticed the characters you like the most start chatting to each other? When you get to that point in the writing where you have done character development and as I suggested before,  worked out their quirks, then the characters themselves start to take the steer. Part of me likes to think that this is because I am deeply acquainted with the people so I know what they would say or do. But really it’s because these people you have created have come alive and are demanding attention. (If you want to understand this perspective, I would recommend the book Bunny by Mona Awad that I reviewed here.) So once they are so alive to you, they do something else weird: they start talking to each other.

Recently I have written two arguments that happen as she befriends the enemy of the piece. One reason was that I had started to realise there wasn’t enough conflict in the novel; got to give these characters problems. Goodness knows life throws me enough lemons, and by rights you should be chucking lemons at their heads throughout the rising action. As she wrestles with the problems with her neighbours and friends, my main character seems quite meek. I could find quite easily how others speak to her bit it was more tricky to get her to speak out loud.

Here were some tricks I tried to get the arguments going:

1. Ignore the actions

To start the scenes with arguments I didn’t getting her to the place but started writing where she already is. The setting isn’t important because if you are picturing it, you known where they are. Once I had started one scene I knew she was on the bottom step, looking up awkwardly but the words have already told us she is been treated as a subordinate.

2. Say it out loud

Saying the words you’ve  written helps the dialogue feel more real. I also get Word to read out my work to me to help spot those double words or odd sounding phrases.

3. Act it out

I am a wannabe actor as well as writer and this is where those years of improv play out. Playing my characters as I sit before the computer is one of the reasons I crave alone time! I think understanding the rules of drama (start late, leave early, for example) helps us write dialogue. I haven’t written a play since A Level but some of those skills still help.

4. Record it while walking

My final tip is to say it out loud when you’re walking. I think walking is a great trick for getting your mind mulling over things. Especially if you dare to go distraction free. If ideas hit me when I walk, I like to record using voice memos. It’s a great to really have that argument. Although my final tip would be to find a quiet spot to say it out loud!

Have you any tips for writing good dialogue? I’d love to hear from others who struggle with this.

REVIEW: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I loved this dark, postcolonial horror story.

After her family receives an odd letter, Noemi goes to rescue her cousin Catalina from whatever is disturbing her mind at High Place. From the book description…

Noemi’s chic gowns and perfect lipstick are more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing, but she immediately heads to High Place, a remote mansion in the Mexican countryside, determined to discover what is affecting her cousin.”

The gothic details of High Place caught me from the beginning. The old English family, the Doyles, use candles and oil lamps and only sparringly. The effect of the light and the details of the dusty mansion added to the creepy setting. As she describes the chapter three, the very house feels suffocating from the moment we see it in the lamp light that “… painted the velvet curtains green. In one or other of her stories Catalina had told her the Kublai Khan executed his enemies by smothering them with velvet pillows so there would be no blood. She thought this house, with all its fabrics and rugs and tassels, could smother a whole army.”

The setting informs us of the postcolonial tensions of this usurping English family, coming and infecting the land. Their wealth reliant on silver mines which have closed: the faded grandeur reminding me of Derek Walcott’s Ruins of a Great House. But it also serves the central mystery of the story as Noemi and Catalina both become more haunted by this house. It’s a clever setting that is both exactly what you might expect in a gothic tale but also highly unexpected as we get the final horror-filled reveal in the third act.

The descriptions in this novel are so brilliant. We, like Noemi, luxuriate in her clothes and feel the tensions between the family members whose stiff Victorian manners seem so out of step with this thoroughly modern Mexican woman.

I don’t enjoy books with sexual violence and the tensions between her and her cousins husband, Virgil, as well as his snake-like father Howard, are extremely uncomfortable. However I will say that the way these men try and exert their power serves the story so though it is uncomfortable, it becomes important. It is also part of Noemi finding her own agency as she fights back from the force taking over her mind and body.

Even more uncomfortable perhaps, though again really important to the story, is the racial profiling that Virgil and Howard use to talk about Noemi in particular. At dinner on her second night, Howard Doyle leers over her, just touching her hair as if to appraise her. His books too show her his fascination with what he calls “aesthetics” but what is really eugenics. The true-to-life white supremacist position the family seems to take, combines so well with the fantasy elements of the novel. We can both be horrified both by the colonial history and the dark twists of the novel.

I was so pleased to discover that Moreno-Garcia has written many other books: is there any other pleasure than finding a new author that you love! This book will be great for fans of Du Maurier’s Rebecca but also have a horror twist which reminded me of another book I reviewed, Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver.

Do let me know if you have any other recommendations of great gothic reads!