A few years ago, back when I first started celebrating the new year at the beginning of Advent, somebody asked me if I was going to move all my December rituals back, as well.
I said no. The whole point was to acknowledge transition as a gradual process. The world doesn’t suddenly change at the moment the sun sets on the last day of Ordinary Time, any more than it suddenly changes at the stroke of midnight between December and January. I’m always changing, and so is the world around me, and this time of year, when it feels as if everything is dead and nothing is changing, is a particularly good time to take stock, to see what has changed over the past twelve months (give or take). Change is gradual, and so, therefore, is my new year. It’s not so much a step into the unknown as it is a step forward into what I can see, trusting that what I can’t yet see will make itself known.
I took my camera out for a walk today. It’s been a bright, chilly day, with golden light and long shadows, and frost on the ground that the sun hadn’t reached. There is less colour now than there was a week ago; the leaves have fallen, and yet – there are red berries in the hedgerows; the sky is a cool turquoise, and the river throws it richer and deeper, and the bare branches are somehow a vivid green. The low sun flatters it all, intensifies it.
People worry a lot about Instagram and Twitter, and what we’re missing, and whether we don’t see things properly when we’re looking through a viewfinder, and sometimes I think they have a point. But more often, I find that looking for a photograph just makes me look, full stop. Looking for beauty helps me find beauty; and often, I forget.
This year, I will take more photographs. I will look for more photographs. Even, perhaps, when I’m not carrying a camera.
It’s no secret that I find this end of the year difficult. My mental state is dependent on the hours of daylight. I begin to notice in September. October is awful, always. Then the clocks go back, and dawn comes before my alarm clock goes off, and suddenly I can function again. The inevitable is delayed for two or three weeks… until here it is. Mornings are impossible again. And people are expecting me to be cheerful because It’s nearly Christmaaaaaas!
I cannot be cheerful for an entire month. This is why I take Advent so seriously.
Advent makes room for my inevitable grumpiness, fatigue, disorganisation, lack of motivation. A square of chocolate and a quiet hour, and perhaps that’s all I can manage. Opening the doors, turning the pages: because these are small things, I make time for them. The candles burn down, one, two, three, four, and somehow there’s always just enough left of the first one when the time comes for them all to be lighted. Advent provides me with a solid structure at the very time of year I most need one. Day after day (and they get shorter and shorter) it guides me through, and somehow, when I ought to be the least spiritual and responsive to beauty, I find the time; I stop; I look; and there it is.
Advent is not meant to be wall-to-wall cheeriness. It’s a combination of solemnity and awe, anticipation and terror; wanting everything to be over, and knowing that we’re a very long way away from that; having a keen sense of my own unpreparedness, and knowing that my preparedness isn’t entirely relevant, after all.
I wasn’t ready for Advent last year, either. That’s part of the point of it. Wachet auf. Wake up!
(I’ve heard Wachet Auf twice today, and sung Lo! he comes with clouds descending twice, too. It’s definitely Advent. Ready or not, here it comes.)
It’s early, of course. It’s as early as it can be: Christmas falls on a Sunday, so Advent stretches out for the full four weeks. The calendars (except this one), the candles, the prompt blogs, the poetry anthologies all start on the first of December, and here we are with four days of November left to fill.
In fact, I’m not even sure about the prompt blogs. Kat McNally has shut up shop. Project Reverb seems to have gone AWOL. I think I will join in December Reflections, but I find myself wanting to work with prompts for writing rather than photography. I like to look back over the year that has been, and forward to the year that’s coming.
What am I going to do?
What am I going to do?
I’ve got the end of a box of chocolates in my drawer. I have a shelf full of poetry books. I have plenty of candles, even if they don’t have numbers on.
I wrote this week, in another place,
I’d like to get better at doing nothing, feel more comfortable with empty space.
Perhaps these four days – well, three, now, really – are an opportunity.
I’m a little awed by how fast this book has happened. Speak Its Name took me just over eight years. A Spoke In The Wheel is at eight months, and counting.
Speak Its Name went like this:
July-October 2007: planning. I fill a whole notebook with maps, family trees, and diagrams of what all my main characters – who, at the time, were the original six living at Alma Road – thought of each other.
November 2007: writing. 54,000 words. A very few of those are still extant: some of the chapter headings are extracts from a guide to running AngthMURC written by Peter, and most of those come from this first draft.
April 2008: writing again. Beginning a second draft. I didn’t get very far with this. It was in a much nicer typeface, but it was very self-consciously and archly Barchester, and I gave up after about 3500 words. Even less of this survives, though there are a few fossils in the chapter headings.
2011: another draft, incorporating sections of the previous two. The point of view is increasingly assigned to Peter and Colette.
November 2011: writing something completely different, I have a stoopid epiphany about how to plot.
I am at this moment bewildered and delighted by the way that two original characters have not only developed their own inevitable characters by means of nature and nurture, but have dragged their own plot in with them, because when A is the child of Y and Z, and B is the child of W and X, of course it follows that they will do F, G and H, because this is who they are, and this is the world they live in. And this is just as well for me, because goodness knows I can’t do plot.
Two bits of plot joined themselves up in my mind, and suddenly the whole second half of the story has some actual structure and things are happening because of who the characters are. It’s like watching a bouncy castle get inflated, or making a pair of trousers, or something – all these shapeless pieces begin to fit together and make something that has three dimensions, and bits of which attach to other bits that you hadn’t expected.
July 2013: I discover that Lydia needs to be the hero of the story, and that more of it needs to come from her point of view. This is intimidating, because in the original concept she doesn’t come out until half way through, and now I have to spend the first half in her head? Thanks, story. However, it also becomes clear that if I do this it will be easier to incorporate the other side of the political story. I start writing more scenes from Lydia’s point of view. I blast through 40,000 words – and this is counting from November 2012, not any of the previous drafts. I make a timeline out of six sheets of A3 paper and of A4, and crawl around on the floor filling it in. I blast through 50,000 words. Then 60,000 words. I salvage some words from the 2011 draft.
August 2013: I spend a week on choir tour. When I’m not singing I’m writing. In the evenings, back in the dormitory, I’m cutting up the manuscript with a pair of scissors, rearranging the plot into a workable structure. I also take a trip to Ilchester, to get a feel for the geography of the place.
September 2013: I keep writing, though my pace has slowed a little. By the end of October I’ve hit 74,000 words.
November 2013: I start looking for holes – not necessarily plot holes, but bits where I’ve written [plot goes here] – and filling them. By the end of the month, it’s basically done. Or so I think.
December 2013: at an office Christmas party, somebody asks me, ‘But how did you get involved in all the church politics?’ I realise that the answer is too boring for words. Later, I realise that therefore I need to cut all the committee scenes. So why don’t I just take out everything that isn’t from Lydia’s point of view, and then see what’s missing?
May 2014: I come up with a title. I write a blurb.
June 2014: I edit.
July 2014: I start sending excerpts and synopses to agents.
By contrast, A Spoke in the Wheel has gone more like this:
August 2015: we are watching the Vuelta a España, and my husband makes a throwaway comment about how endurance athletes would be among the few people who would understand the spoon analogy of chronic illness.
It has taken me ten months to get as far with A Spoke in the Wheel as I got with Speak Its Name in eight years. Of course, it’s arguable that I should start the clock in late November 2012, because very little of the final version of Speak Its Name was written before that. July 2013 was where the real action was. Then there’s the time I spent playing the waiting game with agents and publishers.
The other thing that strikes me, writing all this out, is how much of Speak Its Name happened in 2013, which was a difficult year in many other respects. My husband was finishing up his PhD, and I was supporting both of us. He was job-hunting, and I knew that, even if he was successful, the chances were that we’d have to move and I’d have to get another job myself (we did, and I did). And yet I wrote most of the book that year.
And it may yet be that A Spoke In The Wheel has some surprises for me, and I’ll have to do some serious redrafting before I’m done. All the same, I think the really serious lessons were the ones I learned last time round: how to plot; how to make the characters drive the plot; how to let characters make really terrible decisions even when I didn’t want them to.
I’m hoping to release A Spoke In The Wheel some time next summer, ideally during one of the Grand Tours, when the world has cycling on the brain. Looking at this, it feels as if this is perhaps going to be manageable.
I’ve been thinking a lot about burnout this year. I’ve been there a few times. It’s a known hazard of being brought up in an activist family. It’s a known hazard of being a member of an organised religion. It’s a known hazard of working for a trade union.
It’s what happens when you’ve signed petitions until your email inbox is nothing but Avaaz and 38degrees, and when you marched against pretty much everything, and when your weekends have disappeared into doorknocking or leafleting or selling flowers of solidarity, and you’ve bought fair trade, and you don’t own a car and you haven’t travelled by air since 2007, and you can’t remember which of the cereal brands you’re meant to be boycotting, and buying cheap stuff is exploitative and buying expensive stuff is extravagant, and the personal is political, and the political is personal, and you’ve voted, and you’ve badgered several other people into voting, ruining your relationships in the process, and after all that the world is still a mess and you’re still feeling guilty because you haven’t fixed it.
For example, this was me in 2012:
It was all very well when I was fifteen and had no life and was all idealistic, but these days I do not have the energy to be any more political than I am paid to be, and I am sick to the back teeth with everyone else’s Causes, while simultaneously feeling guilty for Not Caring and therefore obviously being a Horrible Person. I don’t think I have any causes left myself. I am so tired of them all.
I have been back in that place this past year. It probably dates back to before the general election in May 2015. I have felt so burnt out, so powerless, so useless, and it’s been particularly difficult because of the way that things have been falling apart. I’ve been feeling that I should be doing something and knowing that there is very little I can do and that nevertheless that’s no excuse for not trying. Filling the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, and all that. So you keep going either until the world is fixed, or until you fall apart, whichever is the sooner. Guess which is the sooner.
I think it might be a defence mechanism. I think it’s what happens when your body works out that the reason you won’t rest is because you care, so it stops you caring.
In August, trying to channel a version of myself who wasn’t exhausted and jaded and burnt out, I wrote this to myself:
you are loved, you are enough
even though you don’t know how to be an activist and an introvert
even though you think you have probably had it with activism of any sort anyway
because so much activism seems to have become about telling people that they aren’t enough and they don’t do enough
and however much you do it’s never enough
because guess what, you can’t fix the world by yourself
and you’ve learned enough to know it’s not your job to bully other people into fixing the world with you
even though you stopped volunteering to do stuff ages ago and the desire to volunteer for stuff has yet to re-emerge and maybe it never will
even though you can’t tell how much of this is predictable August head-stuff and how much is real
and you fear that everyone will think it’s head-stuff while it’s been co-existing with being OK, actually
this thing goes two ways and you’re allowed to be the one who says NO
and do you know,
yes, the thing that is right is often costly and challenging
a) not always, sometimes it can be easy
b) just because something is costly and challenging does not mean that it is right
and you can’t make something right by making it harder
you are loved, you are enough
[and no, this is not a trick designed to make you get up and start doing stuff just because you’ve been told you are enough as you are]
[you think you’ve met that one before]
if you stayed in bed forever you would be loved, you would be enough
and I’m not even going to tell you that you won’t stay in bed forever
because I don’t want you to think that this is in any way conditional
you are loved, you are enough
you are loved, you are enough
And yes, of course some of it was predictable August head-stuff and I feel better now. And at the same time I do not want to get into that state again.
A few weeks ago, having been recovering gradually through September and October, I wrote this on Twitter:
I have been feeling guilty for most of my conscious life for not fixing the world.
Logically, one has to stop fixing things well before all the things are fixed, perhaps before any of them are.
The question is, how to stop feeling guilty about stopping.
Because eventually, you reach the point where you have to stop because you’re feeling burnt out and exhausted.
Perhaps so much so that you can’t imagine ever wanting to start again. And yet your sense of worth is tied up in fixing things.
Meanwhile the rest of the world carries on fixing and breaking things, depending on your point of view, and always wants you to help.
This is where I’m trying to break the pattern this time: to move my sense of self-worth away from what I do or don’t do, and towards the simple fact that I’m human.
I was giving myself permission to stop trying to fix things, to accept that there are certain things that are basically unfixable, that there are certain people’s opinions that won’t be changed, that push push push all the time doesn’t work. That even if I’d managed, for example, to get to the Stop The War march, the war wouldn’t have stopped.
The next day – obviously feeling better for having got all that out – I continued the conversation with myself, and wrote in my diary:
I think that if I am ever to fix anything it will be by writing fiction. It is the way that I share the ways in which I fix myself. And I can’t fix anybody; they have to work it out for themselves; and fiction helps us make the jump, because we have to put in the work.
It made more sense at the time, but what I think I meant was this: fiction – reading it, writing it – has been instrumental in helping me understand that I am human, and that being human is enough. Whether I’m writing, whether I’m working, whether I’m falling apart, being human is enough. Who knows, maybe that will stick. Maybe that was my last burnout. Maybe next time I’ll remember to stop before I fall apart.
In the meantime, I’m going to avoid putting the same pressures on myself, and on anyone else.
Telling people that they’re not doing enough to fix things, or that they’re trying to fix things the wrong way, is not going to get things fixed, or get them to do more.
Or, if it does get them to do more, it won’t last long, because it will hasten their inevitable burnout, and things will remain unfixed.
Midshipman Jowitt exists because I supported the author on Patreon, which, if you haven’t already heard of it, is a sort of crowd-funding site to support artists. Like other crowd-funders like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, the creator can choose to set perks according to the level of funding the individual supporter chooses to pay. And one of the rewards at the level I chose to support was to get a character named after me, though I have to admit that this had very little to do with my decision to become a patron. That was more because I love the whole concept of Stories Under Paris and am keen to see it continue for all three hundred and something stations. And if all this is sounding fearfully extravagant, well, I could easily spend more on a magazine, for writing I enjoyed less.
I have to admit to having some reservations about Patreon – not least, the way that it’s going to turn into a pyramid scheme for artists if only artists use it – but I can also see its potential, to provide a sustainable income for full-time writers, composers, etc, or to cover the costs of a hobby. Whatever, being a supporter has worked out pretty well for me.