Regrouping, rethinking, reprioritising

a full-blown red rose peeping out from between concrete fence posts

I’ve been writing. I’ve filled eight and a half pages of my current exercise book since Thursday morning. Granted, one of those is taken up with an extremely sketchy sketch map, but the rest are all writing.

And on Thursday, or it might have been Friday, I had one of those lovely moments where a whole chunk of book suddenly makes sense. It’s not finding a missing jigsaw piece, because I am a long way away from knowing how many pieces this puzzle has, let alone that there’s one specific one lurking under the sofa. It’s more like finding that the grey-beige piece you thought was part of a building is actually the sunlit bit of tree and now you can join this bit you’ve already done to that bit and suddenly you understand what’s going on with that weird clump of maroon.

I thought I was writing about sending my heroine away to school. I was writing about sending my heroine away to school. But it turned out that I was also writing about her relationship with her parents, and their relationship with the gap which used to be her brother, and how family solidarity means that she can’t talk about any of that with her new husband.

This accounts for one and a third of those eight pages. Not much, in the grand scheme of things. Maybe about 300 words. But it’s made all four of them (I’m not counting the brother; he gets his moments elsewhere, but the really important thing in this part is that he isn’t there) jump out from the page; it’s made the connections between them make sense.

It was a relief, I can tell you. Nothing like that had happened this year and, while I’ve been grimly plugging away, it was all feeling more and more hopeless. Back at the beginning of April, when I was still having to take a nap after a few hours of doing anything remotely interesting, I wrote:

And as it goes on I feel like less and less of a writer. It’s as if I’m no longer the person who has written and self-published three novels, that was someone else, I don’t know how to do it any more, and really what is the point anyway, only five people are going to like it and I will have to find five different people from last time because yet again I am doing something weird and it won’t sell. Possibly Speak Its Name set my expectations unreasonably high.

By the end of April, I was getting away with fewer naps, but I still had no enthusiasm. There were days when I really did think this was it. I thought I’d had my time as a writer. I’d done my three novels, I’d got on a couple of shortlists, the last one was a bit of a flop anyway, and there wasn’t anything more coming.

I didn’t say so. Not over here. For a start, that would have involved writing. I didn’t have the energy for a big flounce, nor yet to explain myself decently. So I just slipped quietly off the radar for a while. And look, it turns out that I was wrong.

Several things have been going on here. In no particular order…

A grim first third of the year

They usually talk about quarters, don’t they? But between bereavement and lingering Covid, things were horrible all the way through to the end of April. I managed to slog on with a sentence per day on everything through the first three months of it, but Covid did for my physical capacity. And, while it was useful to know there was a good reason for my complete and utter lack of energy and motivation, that didn’t go very far to replace it.

Too many projects on the go

At once point I was working actively on:

  • the Ruritanian thing
  • the Romeo and Juliet thing
  • a non-fiction, how-to, workbook sort of thing about writing a book while doing a job
  • Book Bus Stories
  • a collection of historical sapphic short stories (my mind keeps trying to call this historical sapphical, a genre that Hamlet’s players didn’t quite get around to…)

Not to mention things for work and other occupations, things that might have come out without my name on, but which none the less took up mental energy.

It made sense for a long time. The Ruritanian thing was terribly coy and rarely wanted to be the main act. The how-to thing quite often wrote large chunks of itself without my really noticing. And I’ve always found that the best way to stay invested in a project is to keep working on it. After all, it wasn’t much more difficult to add one sentence each to five projects than it was to add five sentences to one, and some days it was easier.

I’m not sure when it stopped making sense. Probably with Covid. I’d realised I needed to focus more by the beginning of April, which tracks. And really, before then I was too ill for it to be of any benefit anyway.

Your regularly scheduled mid-book slump

This happens every time. Every single time.

It was particularly derailing with Speak Its Name because, this being my first time, I didn’t know that this was a thing that happened. Moreover I hadn’t yet proved to myself that I could finish a book.

This time, though, it really threw me. I’d had two significant life events, one of which knocked me emotionally, and the other physically. Intellectually, too. I had the brain fog, and it is not an asset in writing anything at all. Once again I was in unknown territory, and I had no way of knowing whether I’d be able to find my way back from either of them.

This time I actually have given up on a book

Temporarily, at least. I’ve put the Ruritanian thing on the back burner, and maybe I’ll turn off the gas altogether. We’ll see.

The thing with several of these projects was that they weren’t serving their original purpose. The Ruritanian thing, for example, was meant to be light-hearted fun which I would, eventually, be able to share with my father. Well. And then another person I’d have loved to read it, A. J. Hall, died last month. I’m one of many people who can’t quite believe she’s gone, and, though I didn’t know her nearly so well as some of my friends, there’s a big hole in my reading and writing life. If I ever do finish this wretched book it won’t be as good as A. J. Hall would have made it – nobody had quite the same knack for seeing what I needed to cut and telling me so – and it’ll be dedicated to two people. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be something that I’ll need to finish one day. But it’s certainly stopped being light-hearted fun.

The sapphical historical anthology, meanwhile, was meant to be an easy way to get a book out this year, as the idea was that the greater part of it was already written. Which is true; the only problem is that the rest of it turned out to be ridiculously hard and I can’t be bothered. I have two concepts for additional stories, but I don’t have the plots to go with them. I could make them happen with pure elbow grease, but not at the same time as everything else. It has not turned out to be easy and I’m not going to get a book out this year.

The non-fiction work about how to write your book alongside doing your day job… Well, I was having significant difficulty doing my day job at all, let alone anything else. At some point I’ll add a chapter with the message that sometimes life sucks and you just can’t write; don’t beat yourself up. That can wait, though.

So this time I really have ditched everything except the Romeo and Juliet thing, which, as described at the top of this post, is coming up roses (by that or any other name. Note to self: anything doing with Roses of Picardy?) and made that the main event. And it’s repaying me generously for my undivided attention.

As for Book Bus Stories, well, it’s probably about three quarters done. And I suspect that when I return to the Book Bus it’ll start writing itself again. It usually does. It seems to be perfectly happy looking after itself.

The limits of capacity: post-Covid and writing chronic illness

A fluffy black and white cat on a blanket on a sofa
The view from the sofa

On Easter Monday I reread A Spoke In The Wheel. ASITW, as I shall refer to it henceforth, was my second novel, which dealt with the coming to terms of a disgraced cyclist and a disabled cycling fan. Easter Monday was day 18 of my convalescence, if we’re counting from the first day I tested negative for Covid, and was, like many of the previous 25 days, spent mostly lying on the sofa.

While my main reason for rereading was being in a mood for more cycling after watching both Paris-Roubaix races in the afternoon of Easter Day, and also to see if there was any mileage in a spin-off story for the B couple, it was quite an interesting experience. This is, if not the most ill I’ve been in years, certainly the longest duration of illness I’ve had, and I couldn’t help looking out to see what I’d got wrong.

Of course I’d done my homework at the time, getting two ME sufferers of my acquaintance to check and double-check for errors and faux pas, but this is as close as I’d want to get to experiencing chronic illness for myself. I’m very thankful indeed that I do seem to be getting steadily better. I’m noticing tangible improvements from week to week, if not necessarily from day to day. On Monday I went into the office for the first time since the middle of March. Yesterday I had to have a lie-down as soon as I’d shut down my laptop. Tomorrow I’ll try riding my bike to the station.

So what did I find? Actually, not all that much that spoke directly to my comparatively short experience of illness. The whole point of ASITW was that it was talking about long-term conditions. I was writing about two people who spent most of their lives at the limits of their physical capacity, who were intimately familiar with that territory. It’s new ground for me. Anything I might have added from my current experience would be part of a prequel, or, just about conceivably, a flashback.

My limits are changing all the time. Not, perhaps, so fast as I’d like, certainly not so fast as the Protestant work ethic thinks they should be, but they’re changing. I know about as much about chronic illness from a month of post-Covid as the person who does a one-night fundraising sleepout knows about what it’s like to live on the streets. Which is to say, not much at all. If I were writing ASITW now I’d still need my specialist editors. Maybe even more so than I did before, lest I think I know it all now. (A little learning is a dangerous thing…)

And the other thing is that it came from the point of view of someone who had been disabled and now wasn’t, with all the assumptions that implies. Ben’s experience of disability is far in the past even if his experience of not being able to do everything he wants to do is very recent. He was always going to start out as a clueless git, and being a clueless git is, I would argue, not something that one needs personal experience to write. (I have often been clueless. I have tried not to be a git.) If I’d had this month of fatigue when I was writing ASITW I wouldn’t really have had anywhere to put it. Or, if I had, it would have been a very different book. And, you know, rereading the one I actually wrote, I’m pretty happy with the way it ended up.

Some links

Autistic on Wheels – Katherine’s advice and comments were immensely helpful to me when I was writing ASITW. She’s doing important advocacy work.

The rise of sensitivity readers – an article from Independent.ie quoting the formidable Susan Lanigan

A Spoke in the Wheel

Emerging from the fog

Half-open tulip streaked red and yellow

I think I’m getting better. I cycled up the hill to the post office this lunchtime. Granted, I also had to have a nap at the end of the working day, but it’s still encouraging. What’s particularly encouraging is the fact that both the bike ride and the nap left me feeling more cheerful. And optimistic.

I’ve been having ideas. I’ve been thinking how remiss it is of spy thriller writers who set their books in 1960s Paris to fail to include a Paris bus. That might be another one for the Book Bus stories. I’ve been thinking what a lovely meet-cute I gave my B couple in A Spoke In The Wheel and wondering if I might write a spin-off. That’s another two ideas to add to ‘something inspired by Saints Felicity and Perpetua’ and ‘something in Victorian Stancester’ for the sapphical-historical anthology I was talking about last time. (I added up all the existing stories that could go in there, by the way. 25,000 words, so I’d want to write at least as much again.)

Ideas are great, but they’re only the beginning. Where I’m having difficulty is developing them into something that’s sturdy enough to support a narrative. That’s the kind of thing that I’d usually work out with myself over the course of a walk, and I haven’t been up to walking. Usually I’d be saying to myself, So, this spy, why is he on this bus? Is he meeting someone? Going somewhere? Half an hour into a walk, I’d have an answer, and with the answer I’d have a plot. But that circuit just isn’t running at the moment.

And ideas aren’t even necessarily terribly useful, since there’s at least one school of thought that says that I’d be best off returning to the Romeo and Juliet thing. And I will do that, just as soon as I’ve finished this blog post. But my goodness, it’s nice to have something going on in my head.

I remember that this time last year I was talking about reading St Augustine over Easter. I’m not sure that I’d have managed it even without taking into account a complicated and tiring, though ultimately very enjoyable, family event. The best-laid schemes and all that… But even so, it is spring, and the tulips are out, and so is the apple blossom, and today I saw two goldfinches at the bird feeder, and I have ideas.

Daily Decoration: bead star

Christmas tree decoration in the fomr of a five-point star made from clear bugles and seed beads and blue bicones

I bought this little star, and a few others like it, from a member of the regional women’s committee back in the day when I was looking after the regional women’s committee.

Working for a trade union, you meet all sorts of people. It’s one of the really interesting things about the job, and it’s been particularly good for me. If I am less stand-offish, shy, or socially awkward than I was a decade ago, a large part of that’s down to the people I’ve worked with and for, union staff and union members. (And a lot of the rest of it is down to my fellow weirdoes on the internet.)

I’d meant to write more, but I’m feeling woozy and achy after yesterday’s jab, and my thoughts are wandering all over the place. So this short and sweet post will have to do, together, of course, with a solid day’s work tomorrow. Side-effects permitting.

Daily Decoration: augmented

Gold plastic Christmas tree bauble ringed with a strip of diamanté trim. Reflected in the bauble is a woman holding a mobile phone.

Nothing special about this bauble: it’s a bog-standard plastic thing. The diamanté trim, however, has a story of sorts. Originally it was attached to the little clutch bag I bought to go with my going-away outfit. I felt that it was a bit too gaudy for the occasion and removed it. After that it hung around the place doing nothing very useful until it occurred to me that I could add it to a Christmas tree bauble, and did. I think I might have had to snip off a couple of jewels from one end to make it fit properly. If so, I chucked them. Even I’m not that much of a hoarder.

I had my booster vaccination this afternoon. Consequently I am feeling somewhat less sparkly than usual, particularly around the left shoulder. Nevertheless, I trust that I will shortly be augmented with enhanced immunity, and will therefore be able to partake more fully and more confidently in life.

Daily Decoration: portraits of unknown ladies

Two decorations representing Tudor ladies, one in purple and one in white, hanging on a Christmas tree

I don’t know who these ladies are. They might be two of Henry VIII’s wives; they look rather Tudor, with their stand-up collars and what might be meant to be French hoods. It doesn’t matter. The galleries are full of portraits of unknown ladies; why shouldn’t I have a couple on my Christmas tree, too?

The reason that I don’t know who they are is that I bought them in Oxfam, so they had no labels. They came together with the King of Hearts. Or it might have been the Knave of Hearts. I can’t remember. I bought them last year, in Ely Oxfam. But how could I have bought them last year? All the shops were shut last year. Or I didn’t go to any shops last year. Then maybe it was the year before. Did we go to Oxfam when we were househunting? No. It was last year. I know that really.

It’s just that my mind wants to shuffle all occasions involving shops out of 2020. It’s already refusing to believe that I was only in the office on one day between 13 March 2020 and 16 August 2021: four months of the London commute have overwritten all of that. Give it a couple of years and I’ll be convinced I bought these ladies in 2021, and I’ll be reading back through this blog and learn that no, this year they came out of the Christmas box, and surprise myself.

That used to happen a lot before pandemic times; it’s even more the case now, with so many points of reference disappeared or eroded. I’m glad I got a lot down on paper or pixels, whether in public here or in private elsewhere on the internet or offline; it’s been good to be able to check my internal memory against my external memory, to see where I’ve stretched out one nice week into a glorious month, where I’ve moved an event from April to August, where I was massively excited about something I’ve since forgotten, or the first signs of what turned out to be the next major enthusiasm.

Sometimes I read something and think it could have been written by a different person, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s right there in my own handwriting. Sometimes I discover a revelation written down that I’d swear I’d only just had, but no, apparently this is something I’ve discovered before, and thought was important enough to record. Sometimes it’s plain reassuring, to see that I’ve been here before and found a way out again. That I’ve been here before several times and get better at finding my way out every time. I’m glad I record things.

Mind you, if I didn’t, would I ever know how wrong I can be about my own life?

Daily Decoration: German roundels

Three laser-cut plywood Christmas tree decorations, with (left to right) a nativity scene, a church with an onion dome, and an angel kneeling on a shooting star), each in a circle with stars around the edge

These three roundels (I don’t think I can really call them baubles when they’re flat) are part of a set that was a Christmas present from my aunt several years ago. This is the aunt who lives in Germany, near Frankfurt, and in 2007 I spent a couple of months living with her and her family while I was trying to work out what to do with my life.

I don’t remember any of the churches in and around Frankfurt looking much like the one in the middle there. That’s a style that I associate more with Bavaria and Austria. When I was out there I attended a charismatic church led by one of my aunt’s colleagues. It was a bit of an eye-opener after a a childhood in rural Anglicanism and three years at the university chapel. Somebody had a prophetic image for me. I’d never had one of those before, and I didn’t really know what to do about it, though in retrospect I don’t think they were far off.

One of the questions associated with moving to a new place is: where will I go to church? Pretty soon after I came back from Germany, I moved to Guildford. I was miserable for a lot of the time that I lived in Guildford, but the one thing I never regretted was ending up at Holy Trinity for the Advent Carol Service (I’d been aiming for the cathedral, but had drastically misjudged the time it would have taken to walk there). It was just the church I needed: it had an inclusive approach, intelligent preaching, a reassuring stability, and, in its excellent but non-auditioned choir, a way that I could contribute even when my confidence was absolutely shot and I was hanging on by a thread. We kept going there even after we moved to Woking and I was quite a bit saner.

Later, we moved to Cambridge – Chesterton, to be precise. I thought that St Andrew’s was our parish church. In fact, it wasn’t, but it was the church I needed. Not that I immediately realised this. We happened to land on a family service, which was not really our thing. A couple of months later, we hit a sung eucharist and found that there was indeed a choir that we could join. I went to family services quite a bit more when we were settled there, though. I ended up contributing more than I’d expected, too: by the time we moved on, I was a PCC member, leader of the twenties and thirties study group, and occasional reader and intercessor, as well as a choir member.

I mentioned last year that moving house in a pandemic had its advantages. One of those was the fact that church went online, so I could hang on at St Andrew’s for far longer than would have been feasible in other times. I even got involved in leading informal worship (I’d imagine all that’s still on Youtube) and was still doing that up until this summer. In theory, the great onlining could also have meant that I could get a taste of other churches via their Youtube channels, though in fact I didn’t do any particular church shopping that way. When the churches opened up again after the long 2020 closure I started going to Ely Cathedral. I’m still feeling like a complete newbie (pandemic time may have something to do with this) but I’m starting to get to know people and get involved in things.

I always do seem to end up at the church I need, even if it’s not immediately obvious why that’s the case. It’s almost as if someone has a better idea than I do…

As for working out what to do with my life: well, it all worked out, but not because of any particular effort or thought on my part, and it took rather longer than two months. I’m hoping to get back to Germany next year.

Hyperlocal travel writing: the path alongside the A10

One of my great comforts this past year has been travel writing: reading it, and visiting in my imagination all the places that I can’t visit in the flesh. But it’s also made me appreciate where I am. And that made me remember that in fact I live in a city that’s a popular tourist spot in ordinary times.

Actually, I don’t believe that’s necessary. No matter where we live, we can approach our streets, gardens, kitchen tables, with a travel writer’s eye (and perhaps an attitude of self-parody, if need be). Take a look at this: Travel and Food Diary: Quarantine Edition.

So, if you’d like to jump in and share your hyperlocal travel writing, please do. (#HyperlocalTravelWriting ought to do it.) We can visit each other virtually, travel the world, see the sights, taste the food, smell the scents, from our computers.

At the same time, it felt a bit like cheating to go straight in with the cathedral and Oliver Cromwell and all the rest of the attractions on my doorstep. They’ll come later, I’m sure. But I thought I’d start with something more ordinary: the path I walk most days.

Pale blue morning sky with moody purple, pink and apricot clouds over twentieth century detached houses, bare winter trees, a shining tarmac path, and dull grass

Start at the north end. Immediately, there’s a choice. Left or right? Left, the path is narrower and the trees are closer. Right, the wider path is split down the middle: red for cycles, grey for pedestrians. They clasp between them a broad green space. There’s probably a dog or two bounding across it: a black labrador, maybe.

Left or right? It doesn’t matter. This wasn’t so much a fork as a spoon, and you started at the very tip of the bowl. If you didn’t dip down to the subway under the main road, drawn by the allure of a takeaway (not, in these times, a film or a swim) at the leisure park, or follow one of the little paths off to the left to find yourself somewhere at the end of a cul-de-sac, you’ll be where the bowl meets the handle. Now the two paths join, split the difference, become a sinuous strip of tarmac self-consciously meandering between the houses on the left and the trees on the right. The cycle track ends, but the cyclists continue: a lad on a paper round, sporty-looking people on mountain bikes, small children wobbling on stabilisers or whizzing off on balance bikes. Scooters, too. Dirt tracks, made by children or dogs, lead off into the trees and emerge again a little further on, for the pleasure of going nowhere in particular.

Beyond the trees, the A10 roars on. Somebody’s going somewhere, even if it isn’t you. South, towards Cambridge and London. North, towards the sea. The birds keep singing regardless. Thrushes, sparrows, pigeons. You might even hear a cockerel.

Now the path dips, loses a couple of metres in height. You notice it, out here in the Fens. The path broadens a little, becomes concrete, passes a small water processing plant, is barred by a gate (easy to walk round, and a particularly good blackberry spot in the autumn), meets the road. Not the main road, but the one that takes the traffic into the city from the north west. The cars (it mostly is cars) coming from the south whose drivers wish to do this veer into the middle lane, slow rapidly, and wait for the southbound lane to be clear. From the north, it’s easier. Meanwhile, the main flow of traffic – cars, white vans, grimy lorries, huge tractors in primary colours, hauling gleaming-bladed implements behind them – keeps on going.

Cross the road, and pause on the other side. Look up the hill. There’s the cathedral, effortlessly imposing. You’d have to climb a bit to get to it, more than you’d think from looking at it from here. You’ll have to climb anyway, following this path.

Again, the planted tree barrier has grown up on the right, recently enough that you can still see the plastic guards around the trunks, long enough ago that some of the trees have swelled enough to push them off. Hazel, silver birch, blackthorn, wild roses, brambles. Even in winter, the rosehips make the hedges bright. The houses are a little further away, but every so often a path branches off to take residents off into the maze that only they have really got their heads around.

Still it continues, an artificial path winding through artificial bumps and mounds, little bridges crossing little drains. Chunky plastic benches are provided at decent intervals. This is a path for people. Keep on climbing, and you come to a wide, open green. Look at the houses, spot which ones have been made to the same pattern as each other. Watch the dogs joyfully chasing balls. There might even be someone with a kite. Some new trees were planted this winter, filling in some more of the space between the path and the road: try to picture what it’ll look like when they’ve grown up. At the top end, there’s another little bridge, and then you’re back on this same climbing, tarmac path, tucked between the houses and the road, except now the road is quite a way beneath you.

At the top of the hill the path gives onto a square of houses with an impressive playground and a majestic horse chestnut tree, older than anything around it. Keep on past it.

If it’s been dry, or very cold, or if you’re not too worried about your shoes, you might as well leave the path and climb up to the top of the little mound which really is as high as you can get. Look down on the road, look west across the fen, look at the morning sky. Follow the hedge line or walk the ridge, sloping down southwards. Or you can keep on along the path, which has its own rewards: huge variegated ivy leaves; snowdrops and crocuses, or, later, cherry blossom; or later still, the orange balls of buddleia globosa, thick with bees; a bush full of opinionated sparrows; a copper beech hedge; a bright-beaked blackbird.

And then you’re at another road. Look left, and there’s the cathedral again; right, the roundabout to sort the Ely traffic from the northbound traffic from the southbound traffic from the westbound traffic and the traffic that wants the filling station or the Travelodge. And straight ahead, a tranquil field, ploughed or green, and another lone chestnut tree, its branches sweeping downwards, hazy in the morning light.

December Reflections 29: hope for the world

page marked with a grid, with three drawings in pencil and coloured pencil of people's faces in profile

Well, there’s the vaccine, obviously. Vaccines, plural. (Insert the usual bus joke here – but the ‘waiting ages’ part isn’t quite true this time, is it? Goes to show what can be done when the will and the funding can be found.) I for one am tentatively beginning to think of 2021 as being a little less of a blank than 2020, though of course I’ll be a long way down the list.

I seem to be shelving ‘hopes’ in the same place as ‘intentions‘: today, I just don’t have the energy for anything specific. (Though maybe we’re going to acquire a cat.) This prompt is looking more generally, though, and I’m going to go as general as you can get: humanity.

And by

hope for the world: humanity

I mean both

I hope that all over the world people will come to appreciate their kinship with all their fellow human beings, and will act accordingly

and also

I believe that any hope there is for this lovely, vulnerable, world, and for all its peoples, lies in our recognising and claiming our humanity, and in bearing the responsibility that we all have for our fellow human beings and for the world we live in

Whatever that looks like.

December Reflections 25: love is…

waxing gibbous moon seen just below the edge of a wooden porch, which has blue and green fairy lights twined around the beam

I have been writing, on and off, for the last three years at least, about what love is and what love looks like, and this year it’s looked very odd indeed. Staying away from people. (I’ve heard all the introvert jokes, and made quite a lot of them.) I spoke to most of my family earlier: they were eating Christmas dinner outside, in the teeth of a bracing sea breeze off the English Channel. Meanwhile, I continue to lurk in the Fens like Hereward the Wake.

Love doesn’t always look the way we expect it to. I think this is something I learn over and over – but how much more so this year?