The Wall

IMG_1843So now I’ve hit the wall.

I can’t write.

Up until now, the book I started writing back in March, the one that came to me in the middle of a sleepless night, the one that made me leap out of bed to write it down, the one that showed such promise, has stalled completely.  I don’t know why. It’s like I got to a certain place in the narrative and everything just stopped. So now when I open the document, instead of writing, I sit there staring at the blank screen, getting more and more frustrated and angry with myself and with the book because it won’t behave.

When I can’t write, I paint. I cannot paint to save mine or anybody else’s life.  The thing that’s on my easel right now, I think I’ll call “Haphazard Blobs Attacking a Sea Monster.” It looks like nothing mortal. I don’t know what it looks like. It doesn’t matter, though, because I don’t care about the painting. I just like dabbing paint onto the canvas and making a mess – getting paint on my hands and my clothes, rubbing paint on with my fingers, playing in it. It’s like being a four-year-old again.

(Actually, if you turn the canvas upside down it looks like a school of tiny fish being consumed by a giant pink amoeba.)

That’s the point, though. I am willing to paint badly (and oh boy, do I ever!) I don’t mind messing up a canvas. It doesn’t matter. It’s just for fun. I know if I could adopt this same mindset about my writing, I’d be a lot better off.

The current problem? I have no idea what happens next. I think something needs to blow up or burn down – or maybe blow up and then burn down. I’m afraid to introduce such an element because I’m certain sure doing so will ruin it. Mind you, this is a rough draft – a very rough draft – and the only person I’m telling the story to is myself. Nobody else is going to see it, just like nobody is going to see my awful painting that looks like it was done by someone without opposable thumbs.

Every time I hit the wall I panic. I have to keep reminding myself: be willing to write badly. Be willing to write garbage. Be willing to make a mess. This novel has been problematic since the beginning, starting out first as one kind of story and then slowly morphing into something different. That’s not the problem. I know I can go back and rearrange things, take out and put in, rewrite, revise, edit. I’ve done it so many times before. I can do this. And of course the evil little voice in my head goes Are you sure? Maybe this is as far as you go. Maybe you don’t have anything else and this is as good as it gets. 

The problem is this: in order to get past this current sticky patch, I have to write badly, and I hate that.

It’s hard to be willing to write badly. I want to think that I know what I’m doing, I’ve done it so many times before, hey I’m a veteran of these wars! It is so hard to allow myself to write badly because my ego wants to be the expert. My ego doesn’t need practice, it doesn’t need rehearsal, it doesn’t need to put in the time at the keyboard and make mistakes and have to start all over again. I should be past that now.

Well, I’m not past it. I hate having to write badly. I feel like I’m letting myself down. I don’t want to write a shitty first draft. I want to be first out of the gate and write brilliantly every single time. I’m afraid if I let myself write badly, everything I write from that point on will be crap.

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It’s hard to create anything if you’re afraid of failure. (I’ve failed so many times, you’d think I’d be well-versed in the procedure by now, but no.) Being creative means stepping out on that limb that you don’t think will hold your weight; sometimes it means the limb breaks underneath you and you make a fool of yourself. Sometimes the limb holds, and you can advance a little. Sometimes you reach out for a limb you thought was there, only to find out it isn’t. And I think I’ve tortured this metaphor long enough.

I want this book to be good. I want this book to be read. I want someone to read it and when it’s done, sit back and think, that was a good read. I really enjoyed that.  If I go ahead and finish writing it, there’s a good chance it will be rubbish. It might be the most embarrassingly awful dreck I or anyone else has ever produced.

But if I don’t go ahead and finish writing it, no one will ever read it. So I’ll write badly and I’ll finish it. I can do this. I can.

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The Quality of Light

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The beautiful summer that we had is winding down. The topmost leaves in the mountain ash tree in my backyard are turning yellow. The wind is cooler, more often coming from the north or the east. I have loved the summer. I can feel its end drawing near, but I’m not sad. I’m grateful to this beautiful season for what it’s given me, but I am looking forward to autumn. Autumn is my favorite season of all.

I’m a very visual person. I think in pictures and scenes. I’m acutely interested in the insides of buildings and what rooms look like late in the afternoon when the day’s portion of sun is fading, being withdrawn and gathering reluctantly in the corners.  If someone walked into that room, what would they feel? What might they be thinking? Most importantly, at least to me, what would they be seeing?

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The recreation of Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles in the south of France, as it appears on Airbnb.

If someone were sitting at that table, there, looking out of that window, perhaps gazing upon a little town, or a village square with a well, or waving fields of grain awaiting harvest, what would they feel? I love to watch the clouds being chased across the sky by the insistent autumnal wind: forget summer. I’m here now. 

Certain colors gain strength and poignancy in autumn. A particular shade of blue looks different under bright summer sun than it does in soft September light. The brilliant shades of the trees is astonishing to me: how can these colors be? How can they exist? Well the short answer of course is the breakdown of chlorophyll, but my God, the red and orange and yellow! I can only just restrain myself from lying down in a pile of leaves and rolling around.

I have done this. I am not ashamed.

The quality of autumn light is different. The angle of the sun has shifted and the world is spinning away from warmth, into darkness. There’s a soft veil over everything. The sunshine is diffused. There are longer shadows in the garden. It’s so beautiful. Early in the morning in September, I often feel like I’m walking in a dream, where nothing is  real and your feet don’t quite touch the ground. Whereas summer inspires in me stories that are languid and sleepy and rather louche, autumn suggests wood-paneled rooms lined with books, a fireplace, windows closed against the weather.

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The advent of autumn invites my creative self to turn inward. I find myself contemplating stories set in interior spaces – libraries, archives, antiquarian bookstores, antique shops, creepy old Gothic houses, with or without hidden passageways.  My reading tastes veer towards books like Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale or Daphne DuMaurier’s classic Rebecca. I wrote The Lovely Beast, a steampunk re-imagining of the Dracula/Van Helsing story, as fall was setting in.

Right now I am finishing up a novel that I started back in March. When I say ‘finishing up’ I mean tying up the end of the first draft. The book will almost certainly change between now and its final version. I haven’t decided what I’m going to work on next – there are several options floating around – and maybe I might decide to take a sabbatical, not do any writing. Either way, I have the glorious (I hope!) days of autumn to look forward to, that ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ that Keats spoke of.

P.S. I don’t know if anyone is reading this blog or not. I intended it as a series of ‘letters’ from me to whomever wants to read it, so if you are reading it, I ask that you consider it an ongoing correspondence from me to you.

If Love Could Have Saved You…

I first saw you on the Heavenly Creatures ‘adoptable dogs’ page, back in 2007. What struck me was how much you looked like Lola – same markings, everything. It said that your dad, an older gentleman from Cox’s Cove on the west coast, had passed away, and you had no one. We were looking for a friend for Lola, so we called up your foster mom. She said you were about thirty pounds and looked rather like a pot-bellied pig. We decided to bring Lola to meet you.
 
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We met in a house downtown, an old triple-decker that had seen better days. We had to go all the way to the top to meet you. That strikes me as appropriate now. At the top was where you belonged.  I remember my trepidation as we walked up the three flights of stairs. I wanted Lola to accept you. I wanted you to be the right dog for us, and I wanted you to fit seamlessly into our family. I didn’t know if any of these things would happen.
 
The moment Lola saw you – the moment I saw you – that was it. She was all over you, giving you kisses, ‘talking’ to you, dancing around you. When we turned to take you with us, you practically dragged us down the stairs. You were going home! You were going home with us. 
I remember you and Lola exhausted yourselves running around the house. You got so excited you threw up your supper, then you hid in the living room because you were afraid I was angry. Oh my darling, as if I could ever be angry at you. You were an angel in a furry coat and I loved every single moment I spent with you.
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You fitted into our family from the start. It was like you’d always been with us. I remember you sitting with me on the couch, downstairs in the rec room, and you were gazing at me thoughtfully. Then you put out your paw for me to shake. I fell in love so hard, I swear my heart cracked wide open. I knew, from that moment, you were my dog. You crawled into my lap and put your arms around my waist and we snuggled. “You’re home,” I whispered into your silky-soft ears. “You’re safe at home forever.”
In the end we only had six years with you. Six years of long walks and romping in the winter fields. Six years of snuggles during snowstorms. Six years of holiday cottages in the country, and picnics on the beach while we sat together and listened to the sea crashing on the shingle.
Oh, my darling, I loved you so. Those years went by much too fast. I saw you were getting tired, and it was harder for you to get around. You didn’t want to go for walks anymore. You preferred to sleep in a puddle of sun in the living room. There were other things, too. You started using the bathroom in the house, despite having impeccable house training all your life. Sometimes when I called you, you didn’t come, or if you did come, you stared at me like I was a stranger.  You were having trouble getting around, and you’d begun to pant and cough a lot; you couldn’t rest; you were in pain almost all the time. You often went out into the garden and stood up, looking around, as if you’d suddenly arrived in a strange land, friendless and alone.  I knew – I knew what was coming, and I dreaded it.
On Friday, August 23, 2013, you died. Dr. Margaret Brown-Bury – you and she were old friends; she called you ‘handsome man’ – helped you on your way. I held you while they shaved your paw to put the needle in. I reminded you of all the wonderful things we had done over the years. I kissed you and I told you “You will always be my boy. You will always be Mommy’s boy.”
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The last picture I ever took of you, on a fuzzy blanket in the clinic, just before you died.
And so Dr. Brown-Bury administered the drug that would ease your pain at last, that would allow you to slip out of this world. You were gone within seconds. I cried so hard I couldn’t see. I had to sit in the parking lot for a while until my vision cleared enough to drive home.
For an entire year after you died, I couldn’t speak your name out loud without bursting into tears. There are some days now, five years later, that are still like that. You were an incredible dog.  I remember finding out that you’d been waiting to be adopted for almost forever. No one wanted you because you were an ‘older’ dog, eight when we brought you home, and you weren’t a cute, fluffy puppy anymore. I used to think it was sad that you sat there for so long, waiting and waiting, and no one came.
I know now you were waiting for me.
Sheppie, 1999-2013. If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever. Rest well, my dear old friend. Until we meet again.
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Unmasking the Medusa

 

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“People do not see you, / They invent you and accuse you.”
― Hélène Cixous, author, The Laugh of the Medusa

 

 

 

I was thinking the other day about how people – myself included – create and inhabit masks they make for themselves. I don’t know if it’s cultural pressure or what, but it’s like we have to have a persona to live in and carry with us through the world, like a turtle shell, like something we use for protection. Maybe we tried to be authentic in the past, and were mocked or shamed for it by people or institutions who didn’t understand. Maybe we disclosed an inconvenient fact and someone didn’t like it. Maybe we tried to speak our truth and stepped on somebody’s toes. Whatever happened, we learned to shut up and play small. We made ourselves a false self, and climbed inside.

It takes a lot of energy to maintain a façade like that. I know, because I did it for years, afraid that who I am, just as I am, wasn’t not good enough. After a while, keeping up a pretense becomes exhausting. You get tired of apologizing for being who you really are; you yearn for authenticity. It becomes too much effort to be what people expect. After a while, you find yourself saying things like “I don’t agree” or “I’m not interested in that” or, you sit in the back of the room at yet another pointless meeting and cough “Bullshit!” and you’re not one bit sorry. You are no longer interested in anyone’s cover story. Narcissists bore the hell out of you. Who are you, really? I don’t want to hear how everybody thinks you’re brilliant or you’re gifted or you’re special or how, when you were born, your grandfather said ‘this child isn’t real’ or some such self-serving nonsense that you tell because you’re trying to convince everyone how speshul you are. The only stories I have time for are the ones I write. Be your authentic self with me – or be somewhere else.

We all create false images of ourselves that we then project onto the world. I’ve done it. For a long time it was like second nature to me. I believed I had to edit myself in order to be accepted by my peers. I had to pretend to be something I wasn’t. I learned to nod and smile, and it plain wore me out. I had to risk being disliked – and, in one particularly vicious episode, thrown under the bus professionally – in order to be myself. Guys, guys! Hey! The emperor is naked!

In order for me to function as a creative person, I have to know my own silence. I have to be comfortable in my own skin, without needing to embroider or embellish who I am. It simply takes far too much energy to maintain a mask. I can’t go along to get along. If the emperor is dancing in the altogether with his ass flapping in the breeze, I’ll point it out. Sorry if that hurts your feeling.

You choose yourself when you choose authenticity. Good writing, honest writing, comes from the truest place inside you. It’s not easy being who you really are, but if you’re serious about your art, it’s necessary. You can’t create from a place of falseness. Nobody speaks clearly through a mask.

It’s up to you.

 

 

 

 

 

Sorry, We’re Closed: Consent in the Age of Social Media

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I’d originally planned to write about something else entirely, but this topic has been on my mind the past several days, so I figured I’d give it a bash.

 

I think social media is a wonderful thing. I like catching up on friends’ news, especially those who live far away – sharing their joys and tears, enjoying pictures of pets, children, and grandchildren, or moaning about the state of the world in general.  (You have to admit, some days it seems like we as a species are just circling the drain.) Being a writer is hard for a lot of reasons; the requirement that we isolate ourselves to work means that we often end up lonely.  Social media allows us to connect with others in a way that’s not always possible in today’s world.

If someone adds me as a friend on Facebook or Twitter, or I add them (don’t look for me on Instagram; I’m hardly photogenic and I take shite pictures besides) I’m assuming you will respect the boundaries that I set down. I’m not averse to chatting with people, but here’s the thing: if I’m online on a DM or in a chatroom, I’m not working. I’m not writing. I’m not doing the thing I came here to do. That’s a problem.  Like any profession, mine has certain goals for which I’m responsible: this many words a day, finish that chapter, rewrite/generate a new version of something old that’s not quite working the way I intended. Or clean out the refrigerator, do the laundry, pick up dirty socks off the floor, and play with the dog.

Recently someone added me on Twitter. And proceeded to DM the living daylights out of me until I told him politely that he had to stop. He didn’t stop. So I blocked him. If I tell you I can’t talk with you, and you continue to initiate conversation, I’m giving you the boot. It’s called respecting my right to consent, and if you’re a woman, this is a big deal. If I tell you politely that I’m not interested and you keep DMing me, you’re like that guy in a bar once, way back in the Eighties, who kept grabbing my arse and wouldn’t stop until I threatened to publicly disembowel him with a high-heeled shoe.

I shouldn’t have to do that in person, and I shouldn’t have to do that on social media either.

This same thing seems to happen on Facebook, and God love them, but some people (men, usually) just don’t get the message. If I politely tell you “I’m sorry, I don’t chat online much” and you continue to message me, you’re stepping into dangerous territory. I mean, think about it: how would you feel if I showed up in the middle of your workday, stood by your desk, and proceeded to chatter at you for God knows how long? Would you like that? Really? Tell me where you work. It can be arranged. Please note that I’m menopausal and prone to violent mood swings and public outbursts. Does that suit you?

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An anonymous user on a chat board wrote: “I keep getting guy after guy after guy that friends me on Facebook and starts sending me tons of messages […] and keep doing it after I tell them […] I’m not interested in them. ” I feel her pain. I’m no supermodel but I’ve had men do the same thing and it mystifies me why they do it. Is it like sending unsolicited pictures of your wedding tackle to some woman you’ve never met, in the hopes that she’ll be so impressed by your one-eyed trouser snake that she’ll orgasm violently on the spot?

I’ve had messages from guys that start with “Hey sexy.” I’ve had messages from guys that start with “You look amazing.” I’ve messaged them back to tell them that I’m happily married, have been for 30 years, thanks all the same and don’t let the door hit you on the arse. Still, they persist, asking personal questions like do I have kids, how many, what age are they, (I’m child-free by choice) and so forth. I’ve had guys message me in the morning asking how was my night.

How was my night? It was hot and I couldn’t sleep, and my mind wouldn’t shut down, and I had frequent hot flashes and had to run to the bathroom at least three times to pee. I’m retaining water right now so I’m fat, bloated, and sweaty. You could paint GOODYEAR on my stomach and float me over sports stadiums during away matches. Attach a gondola and you’d get terrific views of the surrounding countryside.

Is that what you wanted to know?

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I always feel that I ‘should’ be nice to people. I try to be a decent human being because, like many people living with C-PTSD or complex trauma syndrome, deep down I suspect I’m not. There are many days I run on guilt and toxic shame, which leads me to overcompensate by being nice to assholes. Tip: repeatedly messaging someone on social media who has explicitly stated they’re not interested? You’re an asshole.

But what about if you’re only trying to be friendly? Didn’t I just say, earlier in this post, that I like connecting with people online? I sure did. And I do – when I choose to, and only then.

Don’t send me direct messages flirting with me after I tell you I’m happily married. Addressing me or any woman as ‘hey sexy’ in an online forum or chatroom is the same thing as catcalling in the street. Don’t send me the first fifty chapters of your 800-page answer to Milton’s Paradise Lost, written entirely in rhyming couplets, on the assumption that I ‘won’t mind’ editing it for you.

I will mind. I will take note of who you are and write a thinly-veiled version of you into a book, and trust me: you won’t like it. Are you contacting me because I’m an author and you think I have pots of money? Boy, do I have news for you.

Don’t message me telling me how lonely you are or, like the 19 year old who tried to pick me up in Value Village, sigh mournfully and bleat “I wish I had a girlfriend”. Honey, I got underpants older than you.  Don’t assume that, because I’m polite, I will let you by with this behavior; I won’t.

Here endeth the lesson.

P.S.: Don’t get me started on the guy who emailed asking for a pair of my underpants.

Creativity Takes Courage (Or, How I Learned to Love Getting Lost in a Bog)

Henri Matisse is reported to have said “Creativity takes courage.” If so, I was enormously creative this morning. I went out before nine, thinking I’d find somewhere suitable to sit down and work for a while. Alas, Gentle Reader, it was not to be. The path I’d chosen was unfortunately shut off by a bright orange plastic web-looking thingy and I eventually found myself in a local park on the top of a large hill overlooking the city. (Marconi sent the first wireless signal from there a long time ago. This, in case you didn’t know, is a very big deal.)

Absolutely beautiful morning. Hot as Hades. I forgot my hat and so the sun was beating down on my head but I reasoned it was all right, because I would find a nice tranquil spot and I would work there. Some Higher Power must have decided that picnic tables were a sinful extravagance, for there was only a bench, no table, and have you ever tried to write leaning on a wooden seat while sitting on the ground? I don’t recommend it. Besides, the ants were far too forward for my liking, peeking into places that are frankly none of their business. Nosy little bastards.

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There were lots of lovely birds: yellow warblers, house finches, robins…and one gigantic, absolutely majestic raven soaring overhead. After a while the repeating songs began getting on my nerves. I’m what’s commonly known as high-strung and neurotic as hell, and so it took about a dozen choruses of tweep-twiddle-twiddle-twiddle before my nerves were shot. To shout at them would be cruel, and besides, there were people on the next hill over, who would probably have looked askance at That Loony Over There Shouting At Birds.

I need not tell you that I got absolutely nothing done! Well, that’s not entirely true. I got a page and a half written before the pose of Crouching Housewife, Hidden Author became too painful to maintain and I had to give it up. I put away my notebook, slung my bag over my shoulder and followed the path down to the fen, which this time of year is a sea of wild irises, so beautiful. wild_irises

There was nowhere to sit, no bench or table. There was a slightly promising flat rock that ultimately disappointed. I was going to have to relocate. I plunged into the woods with all the fervor of a lifelong virgin launching himself through the front door of a bordello; I got lost. What’s more ridiculous is that I know these paths, have walked them for literally years with dogs both past and current, so how in the flaming hell I could get turned around is anybody’s guess, but I did. It was like one of those dreams where you’re in an unfamiliar landscape, turning down first one path and then another, certain that this time you know where you are. I pushed my way through vegetation up to my armpits, tripped over large stones, stepped in bog, and generally made myself hot, miserable, and very angry. It was ridiculous, I thought. I knew where I was. I could see the village of Quidi Vidi. It was right there.  Yet somehow I was cursed to wander like the Biblical Hebrews, but without Moses or manna.

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Mallard Cottage, in Quidi Vidi village. Once a gift shop, it’s now a very well-regarded restaurant.

After more than an hour stumbling around in a bog, getting slapped in the face by trees and collecting more than my share of snail slime, I gave up. To hell with the path. To hell with finding somewhere to work. I was much too angry to produce anything besides the vilest vitriol. I took an abrupt right turn and crashed through someone’s back garden. I’m sure the sight of me, red-faced and angry, ranting and cursing under my breath, scared the living daylights out of the house’s occupants. I humbly apologize. I’m harmless, really. They even let me out on weekends and national holidays.

I ended my trek by taking the long way round, climbing three flights of incredibly steep stairs set into a hill, and stumbling through what was probably the same damn bog.

And I got nothing done.

I did get myself a pounding headache, though. Next time I will remember my hat. I might even staple it to my head.

 

The Life of the Senses

O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! (John Keats)

We have been a walk this morning, Lola and I. She was reluctant to go, for it is very warm and very humid, owing to the near-ceaseless rain we’ve had the past several days. (Hubby tells me that ‘several’ is any number between three and seven, and I believe him.)

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But this morning I was determined, so I seized her before she could crawl into any one of her numerous hidey-holes around the house (behind chairs, under the bed, behind the sofa) and thus evade me. She is twelve years old, very soon to be thirteen, and she doesn’t like either hot weather or wet – but she needs her exercise and it had been three days. You see how I’m attempting to acquit myself for what some might consider cruelty to my dear little dog.

We followed a path along by some rolling fields, a government-run ‘experimental’ farm where they do strange things with seed potatoes, wheat and barley. In early summer the fields are a brilliant, buttery yellow with thousands of dandelions and once, several years ago, I rode past on my bike and the fields were redolent with blooming canola flowers. This morning the rain was a steady dripping between the fir and spruce trees, each individual drop pattering onto the carpet of fallen needles underneath my feet. I was listening to Susan Hill’s The Bird of Night, the narrator’s voice a synaesthetic accompaniment to the scent of the forest and the falling rain. I trailed my free hand (the one not holding the leash) along the wet heads of some sweet vernal grass, the water rolling in beads down my wrist and arm.  It was a delicious sensation.

 

We came upon a field of wild lupins, purple and pink, magenta, pale cream, and white. Their scent, perhaps coaxed out by the rain, was gorgeous. I picked a huge armful as we went, bending low to break the plants close to the root. I wanted extravagant long stems that would arch out of the vase I intended to put them in. The colours were so vibrant I couldn’t stop looking at them; I wanted to drink them in, consume them. They were intoxicating in their absolute perfection.

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The natural world inspires a kind of mania in me. I must indulge my senses. I have to smell the flowers, get wet in the rain, inhale the salt sea air, ford the icy November stream in my bare feet (I’ve done this), walk into the wind, squish the mud between my fingers… I remember once when I was little, maybe six or seven, I went for a walk in the woods with my father. He showed me some small white berries growing near a snowbank; we ate them, standing underneath a fir tree dripping wet snow on our heads. They tasted of chewing gum, of wintergreen. In the summertime we went into the woods near our house and picked sun-warmed wild blueberries as big as Concord grapes and ate them walking home, savoring the rampant flavour bursting on the tongue. In November, once the frost had touched them, my mother and I picked lingonberries (here they are called partridgeberries), a kind of wild cranberry, dark burgundy and full of a fragrant, piercing juice that made our mouths pucker. lingonberry

Author Flannery O’Connor said that fiction and human perception begin at the same place. A writer’s perception of the world is conveyed to the reader through avid description: what something feels like, what it tastes like, what it sounds like. A field of wildflowers bursts upon the retina. The scent of coffee, wafting past us on a city sidewalk some humid July morning, sets in motion a creative cascade that, if allowed to flow interrupted, eventually tumbles into story. The plash of individual raindrops into a solitary puddle in the middle of an empty forest is a transformative experience. We have to stop and look. More than that, we have to train ourselves to see. These lupins that I picked this morning won’t last beyond a day or two before they wither. The memory of them will last much longer. The colour and the scent of them will infuse the things I write. I stopped and saw them. I allowed them to flood my senses.

I was locked out of my house one night because I stayed out in the garden far too long, lying on my back and looking up at the stars. Similarly, a late-night drive along a rural Mississippi road under an absolute carpet of stars is an image I will never forget. Unless I’m standing knee-deep in the flow of life, I’m missing everything. If I’m missing everything, there’s nothing to inspire me and inform my work. I cut those lupins and I took them home with me. I need them. I need to see their colours. I need to make things with them.

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Rock You Like a Hurricane

There’s a storm coming our way – in fact, it’s already started – with high winds and sideways rain, the tail end of Hurricane Chris. It’s been twirling away just below the island for most of today, but Lola and I did manage to get a walk in this morning.

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I’ve been trying to write something every day now. I’ve been using a self-hypnosis recording at night that seems to be helping me feel confident about my work again. It makes me want to take risks – maybe that’s not the right term…it’s like I’m more willing to see where the work takes me, rather than agonizing over whether it’s any good or not. That’s a big deal for me. I’m a person who doesn’t let go easily. I don’t like to relinquish control, even when logically and intellectually I know there’s no such thing. None of us are in control of anything. Even pursuing the illusion of control is a waste of time and energy. I know this now. I didn’t know it twenty-odd years ago when I published my first novel. I figured if I worked hard enough, pushed myself, really knuckled under and got my nose down to that grindstone… But it’s not a mathematical equation, and you can’t figure it that way. At least, I can’t. I used to think that amount of effort coupled with y amount of good luck would equal staggering literary success, but it doesn’t. Much of the time, success occurs because of factors beyond my control, serendipity, chance meetings, the friend-of-a-friend.

The truth is, most of the real successes I’ve had occurred when I finally agreed for whatever reason to step away and take my hands off it. It has occurred when I’ve been willing to fling myself into the abyss, not something I do lightly. I’m sure you’ve seen that pretty quote about the person who doesn’t want to leap because she’s afraid she’ll fall; someone says, ‘yes, but what about if you fly?’ My cynicism immediately snarks ‘yes, and what about if you splatter messily on the pavement below in a shower of blood and guts?’ Probably because I’m too old to be a wide-eyed naïf and the idea of shiny happy people holding hands sings to my psyche like fingernails on a chalkboard.  Probably because I’ve suffered from clinical depression since I was very young, and that constant, hellish dullness grinding away in my mind has tempered me into a different sort of instrument. Your mileage may vary.

But this book is really starting to take shape now. I have no real outline for it, just a sort of idea of where it will go. I’m letting it unfold organically and find its own way. It’s moved aside a bit from where it started and that’s perfectly fine. That’s how a book shows me it’s real, that it takes on life of its own and charts its own direction.  I’ve learned from hard experience: in order for a book to really work, it has to have juice. It has to have an internal integrity that comes from writing only what I know and feel to be true in my heart of hearts – not trying to write what will sell, or what I think people might want. I have to write something that makes me feel, or I can’t expect my putative readers to engage with it. I have to write. I’ve always had to write. I can’t not write. I’ve tried. It’s horrible.

What’s this book about?

A disgraced former policeman, mourning the recent death of his wife, returns to the coastal Newfoundland fishing village of his childhood to sell his late grandfather’s house. But his grandfather isn’t the only set of old bones he has to deal with: when the corpse of a childhood enemy washes up onshore, he finds himself at the center of a murder investigation – one in which he’s the only suspect. Poor Dafydd Furey (that’s his name) is so shell-shocked he doesn’t know if he’s punched, bored, or shot out of a gun. I understand that feeling very well.

It’s the first book I’ve written where the island itself is a character, an actual entity with moods, usually expressed in weather.

We get a lot of weather here, but my God, I love this place. I’m currently reading Tom Morton’s In Shetland: Tales from the Last Bookshop. Of his adopted island he says “This place I’ve found. I’m heart-lost in love for it” and that’s how I feel about my island.

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This book – I’m now some 66,000 words in – appeared in my mind late one night in March. I had to get out of bed immediately and jot the idea down before I fell asleep and forgot it. (I’m sure you know how that goes.) I sat writing for two hours and finally crawled back to bed when it was nearly daylight. I was only able to sleep then, when I had it out of me and down in print.

I’m trying to write every day, even if I only write a couple of pages. Most days, I can hardly keep up with it. It’s like taking dictation, like watching a movie in my mind. It’s me showing up to do the work. It’s going somewhere different, the beach or a crowded cafe, or the middle of a field listening to the rustling of yellow summer grasses.

In order to create, I have to be fully in the world, awake to everything. I have to stand knee-deep in the river of life (apologies if that metaphor is a bit twee) and let it soak me. That’s the thing, if you want to be a writer, I think. Or if you already know you are one. You have to take it all in, the good and the bad, the ecstatic and the horrible, the love and the torment in equal measure. You have to.

You have to sit among a field of rustling barley (I think that’s barley) and listen to the sound the wind makes, rushing through it…like being very still so you can hear the sea.

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En Plein Air

Writing at beautiful Topsail Beach En Plein Air this morning.

 

Watching the BBC program Escape to the Continent last night with Hubby. The featured couple were looking for a house in the Algarve region of Portugal. I’ve never been to Portugal, although a genetic testing kit Hubby gave me for my 50th birthday confirms that part of me hails from the Iberian Peninsula.

At any rate I wanted to smell the sea air and look over an expanse of blue while I worked. Not precisely Portugal but close enough that I could imagine it. Strange to want to be in Portugal while writing a book set here, on the island, but that’s the way my imagination works. Writing in my journal this morning:

The air outside today is what I imagine the Mediterranean must be like, dry and hot with a persistent breeze. You could almost expect to see fig and olive trees growing outside the window. When I was younger than I am now, certain books used to affect me in a strange way. Reading them, I felt like I’d ingested the story physically, like you would consume a food. It lived in me. Before too long it put out tendrils that wrapped around my insides, and I was part of that story. It became my lived experience. The actual physical world was like a shadow behind it. I lived in the story. The reality of the story, of that universe, overwrote actual reality – if reality was even real, and that’s debatable. I can remember being down Long Shore (n.b: a woods path near Hant’s Harbour, where I grew up) by myself when I was young, maybe 11 or 12. There was something there. Not dangerous, but curious about me…I felt like I might meet it around the next corner. 

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I’ve often felt this presence when I’m alone somewhere. The location doesn’t seem to matter; my engagement with it does. It seems to accompany me throughout my life, for whatever reason. I felt it with me when I was walking in Whitechapel late one October afternoon. The shadows were growing long and I was making my way back to my hotel , down narrow streets little changed since the Victorian era. I’m almost never afraid when I’m alone in an unfamiliar place, unless I have cause to be. On this particular day I’d somehow gotten turned around, and the GPS/satellite maps thingy on my tablet decided to quit. I was alone in a huge city, hungry (low blood sugar always makes me irrational) and scared. I had no idea where I was, or how to get where I needed to go. I noticed a group of people crossing the street and something urged me to go with them, so I did. And there was my hotel, right where I’d left it.

I felt it in Nan’s house, one day when we were going to New Melbourne Sands for a picnic in the camper. I forgot something and had to go back in and get it. Alone in the house, I felt this same benevolent presence in the empty kitchen with its billowing gingham curtains and the humming refrigerator. 

I feel like I want to go to the sea today. Topsail Beach, maybe, with my writing. Something in me wants to feel like I’m somewhere else – the South of France, maybe, or the Algarve. Places I’ve never been except in fictive journeys between the pages of a book. It would be ideal to go among people I don’t know and sit at a cafe table on a beach somewhere. I need a change of scene, and the dust on the fireplace hearth will still be there when I get home…