Friday, 20 December 2013

A Consternation of No’s

A good friend once said I could see a patch of blue in a Galway sky.  If you’ve never been to the west of Ireland, then be assured the skies there are often the softest shade of gray.  That friend later took her own life and I sometimes wonder whether my ‘sunny’ disposition annoyed her or if it helped her battle the dark constantly around her.

We were very good friends, so probably both.

Later, when my son came out as trans, I joined an on-line community of trans-parents.  While my sense of humour lightened the load for some of the other parents, it really grated with others.  To be honest, I didn’t understand the deep, abiding grief some parents felt when their child disclosed to them.  Before coming out to me, my own child had struggled so long with unhappiness, I’d resigned myself to this being a lifelong condition; learning there was a fixable cause actually brought incredible joy to my life.  What did it matter, what gender child I had?  As I said then, I’d rather have a living son than a dead daughter. 

I’ve always thought my relentless happiness stemmed from being a realist, but actually studies show that depressives are more reality based than the rest of us.  It’s probably more to do with my reaction to NO being, WHY NOT?  I’m a fixer by nature.

Lately, there’s been a glut of NO in my life.  To the degree that I want to scream at the universe, How can you be so fucking negative????????  These are NOs without rationale, which makes them weigh more than an understandable NO.  I suppose the weight of NO has to do with how it changes a person having impact or empowerment in their life. 

In other words, if guacamole isn’t on the menu, I can choose something else or go to a restaurant where it’s served.  But I cannot make a theatre put on my play.  I cannot make someone return a phone call.  I cannot make an agency accept the documentation I have to hand.  Those are the big fat NOs.  The ones that leave us helpless. Which is probably why I’m a fixer.  I don’t want to feel helpless.  

When I was a little girl, I saw the mulberry tree on fire through an upstairs window.  I calmly went downstairs and told my parents.  My mother later said that because I was the quiet child (yes, it’s true), that when I spoke, people should listen.  This set me up for a struggle in adulthood because in reality, people find it easier to say NO to someone who asks nicely, than to someone who tears a rag to get their way.

Hello.  My name is Lora and I’m a person who can see blue in a Galway sky.  If you scream at me, I’m more likely to hug you than to scream back.  If you don’t hear me after diligently trying to speak to you, I walk away.  This does not mean that I don’t feel the bite of your NO.  I do. 

There’s someone like me in your life.  Maybe at work.  Maybe in your family.  Maybe next door.  Someone you rely on but someone you often say NO to.  You may wake up some day and find that person gone.  And you’ll think they were an ungrateful bitch, when the truth is, you’ve taken them for granted. 

So, other Blue Sky See-ers . . . last night, we made ourselves giddy thinking of collective nouns.  Since today’s topic is NO, I’ve decided the collective noun for NO is consternation.  That’s how these illogical NOs make me feel.  Consternated.

You and you and you, go ahead and feel consternated, but do not let these naysayers get you down.  As they say under the soft gray Galway skies, fuck those begrudgers.

Do not let them do to you what they did to my friend in Galway.  Live.  Say YES and live.

Friday, 13 December 2013

A Small Complaint

I’m not overly fussed about etiquette.  By virtue of being an American in the UK, I’m automatically rude before I open my mouth (but then, I do have an expressive face.)  I don’t take umbrage at spelling and punctuation mistakes in social media (unless it strikes me as funny, then God help you).  My phone conversations often begin without greeting and my guests are expected to raid the fridge.

However.  I’m starting to get annoyed.

I am a person who values . . . now can you guess what a writer might value?  Her thesaurus, yes.  Any other suggestions?  A room of her own.  Okay, all Ph.D. students are prohibited from answering for a moment.  You.  Yes, you, the woman in the back who slept in her clothes and has that look of impatience on her face.  (She’s probably American.)

Communication.  Exactly.

I communicate now to the purveyors of a writer’s work.  When you solicit us.  When you head hunt a writer.  When you want us to spread the word about what you’re doing, you have entered into an etiquette contract with us.

For all the editors who ask us to write something for your publication, the polite thing is to email a response when we ask for clarification or parameters, or to put forward topic suggestions.  The organisers who want your production reviewed, please say yes or no when we ask for an interview rather than pretend we didn’t.  The directors who want your play featured, please keep us in the loop when you change the rehearsal venue or time or both.  The groups who charge double digits for your competitions, announce your short list, because the losers financed that shindig. 
Life can be rough enough without breaching etiquette.  In the bigger scheme of things, of war and poverty, abuse and bigotry, this is a small complaint.  But the way we treat each other in the mundane exchanges can sometimes make or break us. 

Being a writer does not mean I’m a voice activated word generator.  If you want me to write for you, communicate with me.  The rude American thanks you.

Friday, 6 December 2013

St Nick, Suicide, Lord Mayors

Today is the Feast of St Nicholas.  In our house, St Nick fills newly polished shoes with treats and puts them up somewhere high so the Big Nose Dog can’t plunder them before we do.  My parents’ explanation for this tradition was quite jolly, fit for young children.  Recently, the Butler and I came across a slightly less festive version at Mt Grace Priory, told by historian John White in the character of Mr Meakin. 

Mr Meakin
 According to Meakin, Nikólaos was a wealthy Greek who lived during the 4th century in what is now Turkey.  Among his extended family were three sisters in poor circumstances.  The common solution for young women without a dowry was to put them to work as prostitutes.  To save his kinswomen, Nikólaos dropped coins down the chimney and into their stockings hung by the fire to dry.  An odd way to deliver the goods, but it got the desired results.

A few of John White's characters

More recently, there was a woman in Florida, Gretchen Molannens who suffered Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder and couldn’t work.  She exhausted her appeals for a denied disability claim, was refused Medicare because she’d inherited her parents’ house, and was dependent on her boyfriend to pay her bills.  Gretchen felt too embarrassed to discuss her condition with family and friends, and as a result, became isolated by their criticism of her lifestyle.

Gretchen Molannens
A Tampa Bay Times journalist, Lenora LaPeter Anton, wrote an article about Gretchen which prompted offers of free medical and legal help.  However, a few days before that article went on line, Gretchen killed herself.  Her boyfriend didn’t find Gretchen for two days and Anton didn’t hear of the suicide until after the article was published.

My last story is about a priest who, during a funeral mass, asked the congregation to pray for Cork’s former lord mayor.  A non sequitur at a funeral, you might think, but not a bizarre request unless you know that the former lord mayor was on trial for sexually assaulting a teenage girl, starting when she was thirteen. 

The article referenced above asked if we would have walked out of Mass, had we been there.  Probably most of us wouldn’t because of social constraints, respect for the primary mourners or because we were mourners ourselves.  Which is why this was such a perfect situation for doing what that priest did, the sly bastard.  

Here’s the cognitive dissonance for me:  those 4th century sisters, Gretchen, and that teenage sexual abuse victim lived in cultures that devalued them, yet individual members of those cultures were moved to help them.  So, who made up these barbaric societal rules and why are they allowed to continue?

This week in the UK, we’ve had the Autumn Report.  Essentially, fiscal mumbo jumbo which says austerity's working, even though households are worse off than they were in 2010.  Labour says this government is a group of wealthy people out of touch with the population they’re meant to serve.  One of the people they’re meant to serve who was canvassed by the media, said that there’s not going to be a revolution and we have to endure. 

I’m troubled by this statement, this bovine acceptance that we should deny medical care to a woman with a debilitating condition while the Prime Minister puts on his white tie finery and tells the rest of us that we need to be permanently austere.  Yet I feel as helpless as the man who said it. 

It’s hard to have a revolution when you’re working your ass off for austerity.  But perhaps we can have mini-revolutions in our own lives, be the person who offers Rosa Parks a seat next to us on the bus or sets a place at dinner for the trans-woman down the street rejected by her family.  It’s those mini-revolts that can give us the courage to stand up and say respectfully, ‘I don’t think so, Father.  Lord Mayor.  Prime Minister.’

Friday, 29 November 2013

How Does Your NaNo Grow?

The final two days of NaNoWriMo and some of us have fallen to the wayside, bloodied and muddied, pens and printers empty of ink, bodies convulsing with anathesaurus shock while febrile comrades shout out they’ve completed their goal early.  Bastards.  Me, with two days left, there’s 3260 words needed to meet my goal, which for the non-NaNo savvy, means about 300 words better that the minimum daily requirement. 

This year, rather than a novel, I decided to write a daily short story.  It’s elegant to reduce a theme to a defining moment, not to mention that a writer of long fiction needs to churn out shorter works too.  However, I tend to get caught up in my novels and neglect shorter forms.  I faced NaNoWriMo with trepidation that I couldn’t do this thirty times over.  My fear wasn’t that I couldn’t do it well, but that I couldn’t do it at all.

The oddest thing happened.  Nearly every night this month, I’ve had a vivid dream which, the next day became my Nano contribution.  If you’ve ever kept a dream journal, you’ve probably amazed yourself with the range and clarity of your imagination.  But not every November morning was a vivid dream day for me, so the Butler tossed out a topic and off I went, no problem.  The dream experience seemed to prime the creative activity in my brain, and stories came.

Silk sock yarn.
Great for me, eh?  I dream my Nano into being like some type of New Age psycho.  Well, it’s not that idiosyncratic.  You can structure this process by giving yourself a pre-sleep suggestion.  Or recognise that this is a normal way of writing.  That whole staring into space part of creating.  Going for a walk.  Playing Patience (Solitaire) until an idea or phrase works itself into being.  (Me, I knit weird socks.) 

The essential factor in all of this is to relax.  To let it happen.  To trust that you have inside that noggin of yours the ability to express.  That means stop thinking about blog hits and trending topics and punctuation.  Simply let your voice spill onto the page without censor. 

So how did I do in my Nano?  A story a day, as required, but at some point my brain connected themes from the separate stories.  Then juxtaposed characters and put them into the same world.  Dramatic arcs sprouted.  Yesterday, I caught myself filling in a pre-novel extended synopsis grid. 

As I was knitting a weird sock this month and waiting for a sentence to straighten itself out in my head, I tried to figure out how many stitches made the total sock.  I’m not great at doing mental math, so never got the answer, but I did see a correlation between the type of brain that patiently click click clicks out hundreds of thousands of stitches for something as common as a sock, and the brain that tap tap taps out hundreds of thousands of words to write a novel.  It’s the long haul type of brain.
Hairy nipple sock.

However, that brain can knit what is fondly called in my house, the hairy nipple ankle sock or stay the course and knit an over-the-knee silk stocking.  The essential process is the same.  It’s the design and the desire that makes the final decision.  

NaNo’s taught me that I can write a short story a day.  I'm not sure which direction my Nano 2013 will grow now, but if we knew in advance where we were headed, it wouldn't be fun at all.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Ball Pit Friends

When we moved into this house, there was a row of flower pots on an outside wall.  One or two were empty, but most had forlorn plants abandoned by the previous owners.  Scrofulous orchids, nibbled by slugs, some type of succulent and an amaryllis.  We brought them inside, pampered them, and in return, they bloomed. 

The empty pots stayed on the wall, waiting to be used.  Eventually speedwell seeded itself in those pots and we let it run wild.  In the autumn of that first year, the speedwell died back and an oxalis sprouted in one of the pots.  I brought it in and after sending four wobbly stems into the air, it died.  Bummer.  So the pot went back outside.

Next spring, more speedwell on the wall.  In the autumn, once again the oxalis came up, this time a bit more hardy and confident.  Now we have a regular thing, this oxalis and me, meeting up every autumn for its short lifespan.  It’s like we’re intermittent friends that we can each count on.   

That’s the story you hold in your left hand while I talk about what’s in my right hand. 

Early in the week, I read a blog by Amy Mackin that perfectly described when a typical rejection letter becomes a crossroads in the perception of oneself as a writer.  It’s a brutal experience for some (most?) of us.  Her blog made it so intimately real, it hurt to read. 

The blog incited all sorts of responses in me, none of which I shared with the author.  Not even when later in the week, someone thanked me for writing Amy’s blog.  The whole synchronicity of that exchange went zoooom over my head.

And then a friend of mine shared a link about SoulPancake’s ball pit friends.  Basically, a box of plastic balls with a sign over it that says, Take a Seat, Make a Friend.  On top of the small plastic balls are several larger ones with tasks written on them to help the friendship along:

Share three things on your bucket list.
Find one thing you have in common.
Describe the first time you fell in love.
Talk about someone who inspires you.
Talk about the experience that changed your life.
Create a secret handshake.

Those people in the ball pit were random, but they made friendship look so natural and easy.  Sort of like my oxalis that comes up every year and that I set on my window sill to watch grow.  How easy would it have been to’ve recycled the compost that first summer and planted something else in that pot?  To never have known there was something lovely in the dirt?  How easy for any of those people in the film to come across the ball pit, read the sign, and keep walking.  Like reading a blog that moved me and not commenting.  I’d missed a chance to create a secret handshake with someone. 

That’s the way of the virtual world.  What SoulPanCake’s video doesn’t show are the pairs who got into the box and didn’t hit it off.  That happens.  It’s all part of the risk.  But we should, from time to time, consider the moment that we’re in as the ball pit, take a seat and make a friend.  

Friday, 15 November 2013

No Comparison

You are incomparable.  No one else is inside your skin with your history, talents and perceptions, yet most of us compare ourselves to others.  Considering the risk of unhappiness caused by making comparisons, can we live a life free of it?  I don’t think so, but perhaps we can learn a little health and safety about it.

From the word go, we’re taught about ourselves, our world and how to acquire skills through the medium of comparison.  Our society values some of us more than others.  Our teachers put a grade on our attempts to learn.  Our social interactions let us know how far below everyone’s expectations we’ve gone.  See how nicely your brother . . . Why can’t you be more like . . . She was able to, so why can’t you . . . As if denigrating what someone is, will magically make them what they are not. 

I attended a penny whistle class where the tutor would stop us playing and criticise the miscreant, usually me.  I lasted about 15 minutes and then with a smile to show no hard feelings, packed my things.  The tutor went venomously nuts while I packed, the message being that the reason things weren’t working was because of me. 

I said to her, I came here to have fun, and this isn’t fun.  She must have thought she was a fun type of gal, because she screamed abuse as I left the building. 

Shame doesn’t make us improve.  It cannot, because its basic construct is to destruct.  To keep comparison safe, let’s dissect what comparison is.  We compare ourselves to inferiors, equals and superiors.  What happens when we do this?

Comparing ourselves to our equals affirms our belonging in our peer group.  Usually this comparison is reassuring, unless we actually want to elevate ourselves out of this group into a higher status group.  The latter can be a wake-up call for motivation, or a lesson in self hatred.

If we compare ourselves to someone we deem inferior, we feel good about ourselves.  We may even be inspired to acts of altruism to help those people.  Or we can denigrate them to solidify our superiority. 

If we compare ourselves to someone we deem superior, we’re inspired if we evaluate their achievements as attainable, discouraged if we evaluate them as unattainable.  We may even give up.

But what is it we’re comparing?  As an example of evaluation, a thirty year old unpublished writer may want to slit her wrists after comparing herself to Cecelia Ahern who, at 21, wrote her first novel, PS I Love You, which got her an obscene advance and stayed a best seller for 19 weeks. 

There are more variables at work here, however, than being published.  Cecelia Ahern’s father was Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland at the time and her brother-in-law was a Westlife member.  Like Pippa Middleton, anything she wrote would sell.  Although a commercial success, her first book got tepid reviews and was criticised for being immature. 

Some people might consider Cecelia Ahern a success.  Some people might think she was done a disservice by being published so young.  It depends on what is being compared.  The person best suited to evaluate her life is Cecelia herself.  The same is true for each of us. 

Scientific evaluation is done under controlled conditions to reduce the number of variables.  Your life isn’t.  When you think another writer is better than you are, remember this isn’t the first draft.  This is the well combed version of that writer.

Next, you don’t know what advantages the writer had over you as a child in education, in financial and social status, in emotional support.  Life isn’t a level playing field and some writers get a head start.  After that tenuous beginning, sometimes it’s one thing in your current situation that slows you down – keeping a roof over your head, a daytime job, the isolation of working from home, a less than supportive family.

Even if all things are equal, some people are better at writing than other people, but that doesn’t mean you give up.  I come from a musical family.  For all the horrors siblings impose upon one another, none of mine told me not to sing or play during our musical evenings simply because I wasn’t as good as they are.  That particular family ethos is what put me inside that penny whistle class in the first place.  And it’s what gave me the sense to say, This isn’t fun, and leave.

The most difficult voice to walk away from, though, is the one inside your head.  So when that voice stops the writing for a comparison torture, don’t ignore it.  (What?)  No, you have to convince it to stop or it will sabotage your writing.  Take those few moments to calm yourself, connect with what drives you to write (certainly not the pay).  Then ask yourself if you believe in that drive more than you believe in that comparison.  Not intellectually, but on a gut level.  Does that drive to write overpower your doubt?  Could you walk away from your writing today and not look back?

If the answer is, no, then you’re in the clear.  Latch onto that drive like a life preserver and write with a focus on what you’re writing even if you can only write bullshit.  Let that writing be a dialogue with the voice and soon, it will be persuaded that you should write.  Rinse and repeat as needed.

If the answer is yes, that you could walk away from that pile of words on your desk and get a job at McDonald’s, become a scuba diver or take up the penny whistle, then your writing life has become starved.  You need to connect with other writers, preferably in person.  Lots of communities have mentoring programs or creative writing classes or writers groups.  There are scores of poetry slams and readings in pubs, small playwright groups who put on short plays.  

It’s important to experience other writers as people who are not that much different than yourself.  It takes that internal comparison voice down a notch or two, but only if those other writers are focused on creating, not on comparing.  Be selective with wherever you take your starved self.

If you can’t find writers in the flesh, connect in a Facebook group, a Twitter community, read a how-to book, a great work of fiction or see a dynamite play or movie, listen to really good lyrics. 

Then feed your creativity with non-writing creativity.  A trip to the art museum, a craft fair, dance to a busker, sing in the shower, go carolling, sew, carve, knit.  Get some physical exercise.  Walk the Big Nose Dog.  Join a Zumba class.  Do Tai Chi.  Chop wood.  Nurture your mind.  Nurture your body.  And during all of this, tell that voice in your head that no matter how badly you write, no matter how unsupported or out of luck you are, quitting is not an option.

Your contribution is the only thing you have to offer AND you’re the only one who can offer it.  So offer away.  To do anything else is not to live.  You have a responsibility not to just live, but to let your voice sing as no other voice can sing.  Now go write.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Golden Rule

Some folk tout a Golden Rule which says that to be successful as a writer, you have to be aggressive in your self-marketing.  Slam an agent/editor/director against the wall and force feed them an elevator pitch.  Jam your Twitter feed with a loss of dignity.  Show thine ass and they will print it.  And if you don’t have the skin for it, go home.

I’m sorry, but I’m from Appalachia and that’s not how it’s done there. 

First and foremost, you are a writer.  Writing is about voice.  If your voice is ME!  ME!  ME! there are a limited number of people who want to hear it.  It’s more likely that the only thing achieved by that is a sense of control in a situation where you have no control.  In other words, since you cannot make someone publish what you write, diving into a self-marketing frenzy means you’re doing something ANYTHING which gives the illusion of control. 

But the way the game is played . . .

Yoo-hoo!  The gatekeepers to your future as a successful writer, the agents and publishers and theatre companies and editors, are they some type of omniscient being with no time for your social skills?  Will your potential readers only read your work after they’ve been bombarded with thirty tweets a day that say BUY ME!  BUY ME!  BUY ME! 

But the experts say . . .  

Okay.  Anonymous experts.  God love them.  A different breed of human than the rest of us.

Let’s look at a little social science.  If we’re in a public building and see a sign that says, Do Not Enter, most of us don’t challenge that request.  But what if the sign said, Doris Doesn’t Want You To Come In Here.  Who is Doris and who made her the god of entry?

Ellen Langer (On Becoming An Artist) and Adam Grant ask participants to take a ten question exam.  Group A was told that the exam tested reasoning ability.  Group B was told that a group of eight social scientists from a particular university selected these ten questions from a larger number of questions that might measure reasoning skill.  (Which is how all scientific measurement is done, by the way.  Someone decides what and how to measure.)

After taking the exam, all participants were told whether the exam said they had good or bad reasoning skills.  All participants who were told they had good reasoning skills, accepted the results.  Participants from Group A who were told they did poorly, accepted the results as well, but participants from Group B who were told they did poorly, felt that the results were probable, not absolute.  As Langer said about the results, Group B had fallibility put back into the equation. 

If you think about what experts have thought of as empirical data over the centuries, then you know that fallibility is always part of any human creation.  Don’t rely on experts when their wisdom makes you squirm.  Remember that any advice on how to market or write or feed the cat, always has Doris behind it.  And between you and me, I think Doris is taking on airs and graces that she simply doesn’t have.

Friday, 1 November 2013

It’s Nanowrimo time!

My son, El Punko tried for a few years to convert me to Nano.  To be honest, I thought the idea was madness because of the time frame – 50,000 words in 30 days.  My writing has to percolate to mature, which in itself is a drag, but not all of us are born with genius.  The trouble here was that I confused writing with editing.

A few years ago, Nano came during the semester of my MA when we were doing the novel.  The tutor presented structure like a cake recipe – follow this outline and you have great literature.  Since I don’t cook, I should’ve had better sense, but I thought, okay, take her recipe and do Nano.

There was a wonderful madness about that first year.  A word count goal, a map to get me there, friends who were running the same marathon.  Intrinsic to the madness, however, is discipline.  Like a marathon runner, you cannot stop to pet a dog or watch the buzzards fly over the copse.  You have to run. 

So for a writer, that means you cannot stop and rewrite a phrase to make it brilliant.  You cannot stop to research the correct colour of a room on the other side of the world or look up mythology or even the spelling of a foreign language phrase.  You mainline your creativity into words.  If you have two or three separate ways that a scene can go, you don’t stop to analyse; you write both of them.

Perhaps it’s more like skiing than running.  Although actually, I’ve never skied.  Maybe sled (sledge) riding then, when you push yourself off the edge of a snowy slope and hope for the best during that liberating mad dash, the cold wind gnawing on your cheeks, the sled bumping up and down, maybe getting bogged in new snow or wheeeeeeeee scary speed over a patch of ice.  The freedom (and speed) comes from putting aside all the rules of grammar and good taste to say what you’ve always wanted to say in the way you want to say it even when you know that those sort of words and crap phrases and trite scenarios and shallow characters aren’t going to make it to print.  Hell’s bells, you’re writing and it is this honesty in the first draft that will lead you to something fantastic.

The clean up comes later, maybe with a cup of hot cocoa or an Irish whiskey.  But for now, open your wings, cast off your inhibitions, park your butt and write.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Advocate for Your Health

Are you an advocate for your own health care?  Before you answer, I’m not going all health food guru here.  I’m the person who sits on my ass all day with my token Tai Chi and the dog walk exercise regime.  When you go into your GP, do you advocate for your health or do you allow yourself to be talked out of what’s wrong with you?

I see.

This week, another story about another woman with a sore belly and only after two years of not getting better, were tests done.  By then, the cancer had metastasised and it was too late for her.  She was in her twenties and died a few weeks after her wedding.

Oh my, did she not go to her doctor?  She did.  And that’s what I’m thinking about today.

So first, my sad tale.  No, first I want to say that I grew up in a medical family and married into one, which brings probably more than the average number of doctors into my social world.  This isn’t anti-Western medicine or NHS, although both those things contribute to the situation.  How could they not?  They ARE the situation.  That would be like saying cow’s milk had nothing to do with some people having lactose intolerance.  It’s not the milk’s fault but it is the problem.

Now back to me.  I wasn’t a pretty young thing who should be in the best of health at the time I went to my GP over a pain in my thigh.  I was American.  That was the excuse she gave me.  My expectations of the NHS were out of order.  Without doing any tests, she told me that I had arthritis (in my muscle, thinks me) and the pain wasn’t bad enough (I couldn’t sleep through the night) and I probably needed a hip replacement (how do you know without an x-ray) which I couldn’t have for fifteen more years.  Go away, girl.

A few years later, I moved and went to another GP who immediately referred me to the best orthopod in the area (according to my gasman husband) who did the x-ray and found a congenital defect in the hip socket which should have been dealt with YEARS before the anti-American GP.  So all those disturbed nights, all those New Year’s dances I sat out, all the miles of flowerbeds I weeded by scooting on my bum shouldn’t have happened. 

But I’m alive, aren’t I?  My new hip is the best thing since sliced bread.  And to be honest, having to watch my lunatic family dance during New Year’s was a hoot.  The thing is, I once listened to private stories for a living and I can tell you that my experience with the anti-American GP isn’t that unusual.

First, let’s think what a GP in the UK has to do.  See six patients an hour.  Yup, in ten minutes, greet, seat, listen, maybe examine and diagnose, turf out of the office and document a patient’s complex medical situation.  When I went to my GP because I wasn’t bouncing back after surgery, he looked surprised and said, Oh you’ve had surgery?  Then read my file.  This was the same person who busted his ass to get me the area’s best surgeon.  But that’s what he does.  Six times an hour.  He can’t remember everything.

Don’t go in all shy and hope for the best.  Go in with a concise description and perhaps your concerns.  Share whatever medical history you think is pertinent.  When we lived on base, our GP routinely verified a situation with the spouse.  Patriarchal, you think?  He did it because in his experience, people tended to underplay their suffering.  So ask the people who live or work with you how they perceive your symptoms.

GPs also have targets to meet or avoid which have financial impacts on their surgery.  So to practice medicine at the speed of light with Damocles sword over your purse, the default position is that the most common answer IS the answer.  In other words, you won’t be referred for abdominal surgery after your first complaint of a tummy ache.  If you’re young, you could have Crohns or cancer or an abscess or have eaten a dodgy take-away.  Don’t be fobbed off because you are young if the symptoms don’t go away.

If you have a history of mental illness, that will be the first stop for some GPs.  It won’t matter if the symptoms manifest physically.  You’ll be told it’s panic, anxiety, take a pill.  I have had clients with a mental health history who experienced severe allergic reactions that interfered with breathing and were told it was psychological, even when the client could identify the allergen and the attack responded to medication. 

Mental illness isn’t stupidity, and in my experience, usually not attention seeking.  Don’t be fobbed off because you’re tired of being told you’re nuts.  They’re just rude and you need proper care.  (And besides, who among us isn’t nuts?)

If you’ve suffered trauma, that does not make you a hypochondriac.  Abdominal pain?  Because you were raped.  Back ache?  Because you were raped.  In the wrong body?  Because you were raped.  No ovarian cysts, compressed discs, Gender Identity Disorder for survivors of trauma in some GP surgeries.

 Our bodies DO store our histories and emphatically store our traumas, but in my experience as a trauma therapist, conversion disorders (non-medical pain, paralysis, etc., because of trauma) aren’t as common as I’ve seen them diagnosed.

And while I’m on my soap box, trauma survivors – letting a doctor drug you up isn’t the answer.  Too many women after twenty-five years of a zombie life on medications, eventually sat across from me only to find themselves two years later, back inside their lives, medication free or greatly reduced, doing things they never thought they would do again.  GET A GOOD TRAUMA THERAPIST.  Or even a good enough one.  You never forget your trauma, but you can get back to your life.

Your doctor is not the enemy, but accept that it’s a relationship.  The anti-American GP was recommended to me by a colleague who had a great rapport with her.  If you and your GP don’t fit, ask for someone else in the practice.  Switching practices risks getting branded as a malcontent, but if that’s what it takes, be honest with the new GP. 

Your GP has limitations, only a few that I’ve listed here.  A GP isn’t a mind reader and certainly not a god.  You have to be active in your health care, even when you feel like crap.  It’s important.  You are important.  Be civil but speak up.  Ask questions if you don’t understand.  Go back.  Do not let social discomfort keep you from getting the best care.

If you are genuinely being discriminated against for any reason including race, mental health, trauma history, sexual preference, don’t ignore or accept it.  You will not get top notch medical care if you collude with the idea that you are somehow less-than.  And, you probably aren’t the only patient in that surgery experiencing that prejudice.  If you don’t have the internal resources to survive the complaints process, then move on to a GP without that prejudice.

Writers live in our heads.  When our body isn’t functioning up to snuff, we may ignore it.  If our GP doesn’t think the problem is worth exploring, we tend to believe it.  But don’t believe it if your problem doesn’t go away.  You’re creative.  And the only advocate for your body is you.  Find a way to be the best advocate for your own health care.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Places That Are Off Limits

Sense of place, even in plot driven fiction, is a deal breaker for me.  How can you write about a place you’ve never been and cannot visit?  First, a little learning theory.

We all have a dominant sensory perception as well as a weakest one, the sense we use most to process data from our environment.  Have you been asked to do that writing exercise where you give each of your senses a colour, then go through a bit of writing and highlight them accordingly?  You end up with a colour coded inventory of how you write through your senses.  

Dominant sensory perception doesn’t necessarily mean which sense is the most acute.  It means the sense through which you understand your environment.  For instance, my weakest perception is visual, although I have 20/20 vision with my specs on.  This means that if my highly visual son wants to hide a circular pan from me, he only need put a rectangular one on top and I don’t perceive the circle.  I SEE it but I don’t understand it.

I’m kinaesthetic, which means I know my environment via touch and movement.  This makes it essential that my characters are grounded in place for my own suspension of disbelief to take place.  Why, then, would I take on Afghanistan?

The story stayed with me on too many levels to let it go.  The award ceremonies, the repatriation parades, the singing wives and surprise reunions and crisp uniforms, a neat and tidy way of ignoring slaughtered children.  Someone needed to tell the truth here.  So if you’re thinking about a setting that you can’t physically be in, make sure that you’re completely invested in the story.  That’s 50% of overcoming the obstacle.

Next, get the facts about your location I started with photographs of Camp Bastion, floor plans of the hospital, then drew maps of how staff walked from one location to the next so I mentally made the trip from Point A to Point B, following my characters where and how they moved through their day.  

Once I knew where they were going, I needed to know what they were going through – weather, air conditioning, furniture, terrain.  If your dominant sense is something else, then that’s where you would start.  Ground yourself in the location through your dominant perception.  Watch videos, listen to sound tracks, taste the food, smell things that come from there.

To write fully in the experience, though, you’ll need stimuli for all your senses.  I initially used other people’s experiences and I did it scene by scene, rather than try to get all my information at once.  This was only possible because I have live-in access to that information, so could say over dinner, If you’re walking from the Cook House to the NAAFI, what would you see?  Ask during an ad break, If you’re awake at 0200, what would you hear?  Come out to the garden to pose, If you’re in ITU, what’s the dominant smell?  Can you give me an example of where there’d be water?

I consider place as a character in a scene.  Not surprisingly, then, I consciously choose where things happen – is this discussion better placed in an office, at the Cook House, in the Bath House, in the dark?  So if you don’t have live-in access to someone who knows your place, plan your locations in advance, then go to your informant with detailed questions.  Always, always, always use more than one informant if you can.  It diversifies your information.

My experience interviewing people for research has been positive.  I think it’s that whole thirst we all have for creativity, so other people do enjoy participating.  My interview subjects often come up with creative ways to give me the information, such as letting me smell a shamagh that had been used during dust storms or asking work mates who are doing a transport to be mindful of the smells and sounds on an aircraft so they can report back to meWhen writing about a place you can’t go, DO talk to people who’ve been there.  Always ask them to compare there with here, wherever here is for you.

However, this type of research isn’t always practical or socially appropriate.  The technique that I sometimes use to extrapolate from an interview, is the negative hallucination trick.  For instance, as I type this, I’m looking out the window into a North Yorkshire autumn.  There are the brilliant colours, the dulled light and, though I cannot feel it from here, I know the air will have a texture that’s damp and cool.  So what is here that isn’t in Afghanistan?  The most obvious thing to me is the air moisture (because I’m kinaesthetic) but you may say the colour, so let’s go with that.

I know from asking my sources that as my characters go from Point A to Point B, the world has only shades of beige, most of the people dress in camouflage, but periodically they’ll see coloured ISO containers and contract workers in faded clothing.  What would my reaction be to seeing random spots of colour? 

I once lived in Australia which has wonderful colours, but not the particular shade of green our grass had at home.  While in Australia, I didn’t notice this but when I went home, the green seemed garish.  It actually jarred something in me to look at the grass.  Use a memory of your own experience if you can because it will be authentic.

But keep this authenticity consistent with the characterWhat is that person’s dominant sense?  (Will I never let that go?  Nope, not gonna do it.)  If my character is visual, then seeing bits of dull blue or green will make an impact.  If my character is auditory, they may not even notice or may not know why they notice.  Different characters taking the same route at different points in the story can have different experiences which give a fuller picture of the setting.

If you don’t have a sensory experience to help you imagine a negative hallucination method, then read about the brain and how it works.  These type articles often have specific examples to help you understand them (and to steal for your own purposes).

Now that you have your information, accept that you’re not going to use most of it.  If you describe your setting in minute detail, then you risk burying the story you wanted to tell.  Also, the more detail you give, the less believable it will be.  Use a sketch pen, not oils when conveying your setting.  Think of Degas’ work when he was losing his sight, how the vagueness itself evoked the image.  This is what you want to do, to evoke.  Ah, be evocative!  Exactly. 

Developing your craft means going beyond your comfort zone and doing what you didn’t think you could do.  Write what you don’t know.  Do it with passion.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Don't Kill the Monster

It’s been a wonderful and strange week in this world, hasn’t it?  The US government’s still shut down.  In the UK, legislation was passed to make landlords, banks and GPs participate in the xenophobic witch hunt called immigration control.  And the Spirit Moose in Canada was legally killed by non-indigenous hunters. 

Then Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize.  We chuckled over David Gilmour showing his narrow minded ass.  The White Hats win and they’re worn by women.  Canadian women.  If Munro had been gay and Chinese, I would’ve gone back to church.  Having said that, it’s here where we move a little too close to the self-destruct edge.

Let me tell you about a cat.  Stray Eddie.  A pot bellied, one eyed, scrofulous, geriatric stray with hair like an American opossum.  In other words, icky.  We very kindly brought him into our home where he promptly savaged the Butler, terrorised the much smaller females, urinated in all the wrong places, jumped up on the table during meals with the expectation he could eat from our plates.

What an ingrate.  He had to go.  The Butler rang round and was told by cat rescues that the only solution was euthanasia.  Okay, our home had been taken over by the North Yorkshire Monster, but euthanasia?  You do know what that means.  Kill the monster.  Kill.  The.  Monster. 


We weren’t going to do that.  Fortunately, our vet explained cat behaviour to us and we realised we’d been making Stray Eddie more and more stressed out.  Here we had an elderly cat with a collar mark still in his fur who apparently had never been let outside and seems to’ve lived alone with one person who treated him like a human companion.  Now he’s been turfed out only to find shelter where he's under siege by other cats and the new humans have no manners.  On the plus side, he seemed to like the Big Nosed Dog. 

So we’ve implemented the vet’s attitude adjustment plan (to the humans) and immediately, things’ve calmed down.  The cats aren’t merrily skipping round a May Pole, but the reign of terror is over.  Stray Eddie and our calico are in the kitchen together watching birds as I write.  I’m certain they still hate each other, but you can’t have everything.

The same tactics apply to the human world.  In his interview, Jon Stewart asked Malala how she reacted to learning that she’d become a Taliban target.  She said her first thought was that she’d take a shoe and defend herself.  Then she thought, if she used violence, she’d be no different than her attackers.  She decided that she would tell them how important education was – for their children, too – and then say, ‘Now do what you want.’

I doubt she had time for dialogue before she was shot.  However, even after the attempt on her life, she believes that we can only bring change through dialogue and peace.  How wow is that?

We have the power to be wow, too.  Or to be Monsters to someone else.  Writers tweet, blog, express more succinctly and thus more convincingly than most.  Therein lies the strength and the danger.  We can be the GOP holding an entire nation hostage – not just Democrats but children, cancer patients, veterans, the elderly – or we can be Malalas who put down our weapons and recognise the humanity in each other.

Today is National Coming Out Day.  Today there will be children as young as Malala and adults as old as myself who take that step, who hope they will be met with dialogue rather than weapons.  Some lives won’t survive today.  But the reason the possibility exists for a Coming Out Day is because of the belief that dialogue and communication can win out over weapons and hatred.  When they do, it takes our breath away.

My hand is up to say I’m guilty of all sorts of –isms.  I know they’re more naughty fun than being Malala.  But you and I are the communicators.  We have a huge responsibility to do no harm.  After you’ve been shot, after someone kills your Spirit Moose, after the opposition passes a bill you dislike, don’t pick up a gun, don’t shut down the government, don’t kill the monster.  Don’t deride, don’t ridicule, don’t alienate. 

Create.  Communicate.

Friday, 4 October 2013


I broke up with a follower after less than 24 hours.  The breakup was quiet, yet it has its place in the queue for this week’s blog.  First, some other loosely connected items. 

According to The Bookseller, Jonathan Franzen feels writers are being 'coerced' into social media, and that new writers are told they won't be considered without 250 Twitter followers.

Some people find this overstated, but I did hear an agent tell an audience that if he couldn’t find a link to a new writer through Google, he didn’t bother reading their submission.  

I later had a private meeting with him and, if there’s a word for people who hate writers, (mis-scribonist?), I suspect that’s what he is.  Hopefully, he's not standard agent material.  Regardless of his psychopathy (sorry, had the wrong hat on for a moment), he’s the reason I started blogging and Tweeting. 

Writers in the 21st century aren’t in Kansas anymore and I, for one, am glad.  Electronic cut and paste alone make it all worthwhile for me.  However, virtual social engagement sometimes is devoid of virtual social graces.  If we’re truly coerced into social media, we need to consider the impact of a place without niceties.  In descending order from horrific to my experience, let’s discuss bad examples.

Lauren Mayberry (Chuvches) wrote a Guardian Music Blog about cyber abuse directed at her solely for being a woman.  In response to her previous posting, one of the trolls said he knew where she lived and would come rape her anally so she knew what rape culture really was.

Then there’s Writer One who went into vocabulary meltdown on Twitter, fuck being spread fairly thick.  Why?  Because a journalist used a negative word about Writer One, a descriptor not nearly as bad as the meltdown proved to be.  The journalist had to block the writer. 

Writer Two also challenged a negative comment made by a journalist, and they had a short exchange.  The journalist stayed rational yet unwavering in the face of Writer Two’s slightly aggressive but civilised comments.  Two sane adults, right?

Although Writer Two didn’t disembowel the journalist, Writer Two RTed every one of the journalist’s comments and 60,000 followers did the job instead.  One of them reported the journalist to an employer.  In the end, Writer Two got a Tweeted apology.  I imagine it was heartfelt.  

Okay, so what about my Twitter bust up?  Not quite so sensational.  One of those situations when someone who follows someone you follow, ends up following you.  Ray, let’s call him, was unusually witty, so I followed him back.  He happened to be caught up in trans-Atlantic travel that day and kept me smiling with his funny Tweets.  And then he wrote this:

'And I'm not all that keen on Americans in America, but put 'em in an airport and I'm all like Tina, bring me the axe.'

The difference in these examples is the degree.  Each of them is an assault on the recipient's sense of inviolate well-being, and certainly out of proportion.  They come from a deadening of empathy, which is the only thing that separates you from bullies and trolls.  Once you stop feeling it, then you're on your way.

The internet, and social media especially, really let us off the empathy hook.  We live in a world that no longer gives you three chances.  You have a bad day, I have a bad day, I don’t think before I type, you don’t think before you hit ‘send’ . . . the next thing you know, what you are thinking about is an axe.  When you say it out loud, you convince yourself it’s a joke.  Because we all know how American (Black, Asian, female, disabled, poor, LGBT) people are.  They ask for it.

I have to admit that I do a very good impression of an asshole myself from time to time.  When I do, I hope to be forgiven and because of that, because Ray has good traits, I wanted to turn the other cheek.  But the thing about using aggression, even if that aggression is garbed in humour, is that people stop listening to you.  All they can think of is how to stay safe.  When we are sexist or racist or use celebrity to squash the small fry, we silence not only the other person; we silence ourselves as well. 

There are people on the other side of our cyber actions.  There are consequences.  Be kind.  When you’re not, say you’re sorry.  It isn’t rocket science, guys.  Just play nice.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Wee, Teeny Bravery

My current soon-to-be-turfed work has multiple perspectives, so it’s no surprise I’ve been thinking a lot about the writer’s voice. 

One of my characters is Irish.  Predictably, I’ve given him my husband’s speech pattern.  It’s like putting on the Butler’s still warm jacket.  More than that, it’s practicing a skill I don’t do naturally (speak Hiberno-English), a wonderfully engrossing challenge. 

Another character is American, from a region near my own.  I sit back in his verbal rocking chair and become Uncle Remus.  Here is where, in the guise of a gay male military surgeon, I speak openly about dark things.  I am a brave sheep in wolf’s clothing.  My bravery comes from no one knowing what is true and what is not. 

This isn’t real bravery, no powerful earth woman standing with her arm raised, calling down the power of the Furies.  It’s wee, teeny bravery.  But, the only reason this wee teeny bravery exists is because someone asked me to write about myself.  And I did.  And I got a surprise.  The surprise was that I wasn’t brave at all, so wee, teeny bravery is a step forward.

About this character actor I admire.  (Come, come.  The Appalachian mind must travel in curves, never straight lines.)  There’s a British actor who transforms himself so completely for his roles – voice, appearance, walk – part of my enjoyment is to see if he’s in there under the wigs and makeup.  However, when I’ve seen him as a narrator in documentaries, he comes across as uncomfortable in his own skin, as if he doesn’t know who he is without a role.  It’s amazing (and painful) to watch. 

He’s a good actor, you say?  He is.  Then what’s the problem?

For the incurably introverted (myself, perhaps?), the role or the character’s voice protects the interior world, the place where creativity comes from.  Why mess with that?  No great moral reason, I can see.  I just like a challenge, because by stretching my skill past what comes naturally to me, I improve that skill.  Except the times when I fail hilariously, of course.

In this first wee, teeny bravery, I’ve learned something.  First, I’ve learned to honour my own experiences.  I am the only person who’s had them.  We all share certain experiences, this is true, but I had those experiences in my body with my emotions reacting to and my thoughts being shaped by them.  Therefore, my experience is unique.

The next thing I’ve learned is that there’s liberation to this bravery.  It’s like being forced to use your right hand when you’re a natural southpaw, then picking up the pen in your left hand.  That’s more than being a better writer; for me, when I’m writing as the gay male military surgeon, I feel like I’ve moved close to my reader and quietly shared a very good secret.  I feel closer to you.

And so far when I spread my unique experience on the table, the people who see my wares go, wow . . .  I mean honestly, when I see your wares, I go, wow . . . what made me think you wouldn’t do the same?  That wow moment is a gift.  My experiences are a gift to you.  If someone doesn’t graciously accept them – and that’s bound to happen – that doesn’t have to be about either of us.  It just is.

The biggest thing I’ve taken from this is that the act of being asked to speak is THE most important thing that can happen to a writer.  We pitch and we submit and we work in our closets in the hope that someone will notice our incurably introverted selves.  It all changes when someone says to me, will you write . . .

It’s one thing we have no control over.  I would love to say, Will you write, and validate your wares, but me asking you to write is one step away from Granny doing it. 

Qaisra Shahraz (The Holy Woman, Revolt, Typhoon) recently suggested that writers participate in virtual writing communities, not just through RTs and shares, but with our comments.  Give our voices to other writers to let them know their work is being read.    

It’s great advice and I pass it on to you.  Will you write, will you comment, will you speak to other writers?  I request 140 characters of your wares.  Will you write . . .

Friday, 20 September 2013

Mad Farmers & Chocolate Pudding

Big Nose starts his walk.
So let me tell you about the Mad Farmer. Yesterday, when walking the Big Nose, we took the same path as always, but on the way up the slope in the second meadow, Big Nose got all excited. A long white leg had come through the hedge to touch him.  This long white leg was attached to a beautiful Brittany spaniel who was attached to a shouty man on a quad bike.  Mad Farmer.

Apparently Big Nose and I were on the wrong side of the field.  Rather than do a circumference of the field, we should have walked to the stile, turned and walked back.  The path isn’t marked in that way and to be honest, I didn’t consult any maps, just village advice when I started taking this walk.  In general, I’m quite open to correcting my mistakes if you’re respectful of my ignorance.

Mad Farmer began our relationship by screaming at me, soon followed by his female companion screaming also.  Someone who goes from zero to sixty in a fraction of a second, well he’s already made his mind up that I’m no good.  Worse, I couldn't see either of them through the bushes.  So I ignored them, walked up the wrong side of the field, quad bike and shouty couple on the other side of the hedge until I crossed the stile and went home.  I felt bad about their treatment of me for the rest of the day.

Big nose off the path.
I took that bad-feeling energy and wrote Mad Farmer into a scene in a humourous way, a little joke about what’s really a nasty piece of work.  That didn’t make the bad feeling go away, but it did do something productive with it.  And this morning, Mad Farmer & Co are another funny story.

Coincidentally, I’m at that point when a long term piece is being turfed out into the world.  There’s a whole lot of feelings balled up in that, but the icky one is, what happens if this doesn’t go anywhere?  What do I do next?  Is it time to give this all up?

The Butler said the most amazing thing to me.  You keep writing.  Isn’t he the perfect writer’s spouse?  Truly.  But his advice is perhaps the hardest in the world to follow.  Being a writer sometimes feels like swimming through chocolate pudding.  It’s a really big sacrifice to swim and not eat the pudding, cuz I love my chocolate.  By this I mean, the time I spend writing is time away from all the other wonders in life, with perhaps not all the gratification a lot of other jobs provide. 

I get discouraged, even with a Butler.  That discouragement more than anything else – poverty, colicky babies, a deluge of rejections coming through the mail slot – that will kill your writing.

The view
Earlier this week, I met a villager whom I’d only spoken to at a New Year’s Eve party.  She’s dog sitting and wanted to compare notes.  She knew I worked from home because I’m rather visible in my Writing Closet, but she didn’t know what I did.  I said, I’m a writer.  I saw it in her brain, the churning Do I Know You question.  That usually doesn’t turn out well.  So then I said, Not a very successful one.  I do it because it’s what I want to do.

Part of me said, what are you apologising for?  I don’t apologise for my gardening efforts or my knitting efforts or the fact my outfits never match.  But, I’m glad I said it because a really neat thing happened next.  All the muscles in the woman’s face opened up and she smiled.  She made some comment which said, that’s really wonderful that you’re doing what you want to do with your life.

It’s really wonderful and brave that you’re writing.  If this is the only sentence of this blog you remember, then keep it close.  Just that sentence.  Because it’s true. 

Long distance swimmers have people in boats to protect them from drowning, people shouting from the shore that yes indeed they will make it.  And if they get attacked by jellyfish, they get medical care.  Writers, some days all we have are Mad Farmers on the other side of the hedgerow screaming abuse.  The people on the shore tell us to get a real job.  The ones in the boats laugh at us.  When we get stung by rejections, no first aid.  Just those looks which say, you should’ve stayed out of the water.

The goal.
Think of the hardest thing you’ve ever done or had to endure.  Not something small.  The BIG one.  Think of that right now.  Think of the strength it took you to get through that.  You’re pretty remarkable, aren’t you?  You are.  That quality alone is something you should share.  And you do that most effectively through your writing.

Don’t let them stop you from writing, those Mad Farmers of the world.  Write.  Write.  Write.  And keep writing.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Run-Away Writer

I’ve been running away from home to write for a long time.  In the beginning, I organised group weekends.  Other people on retreat make it hard to retreat into writing.  I also see ads for professionally run escapes to striking locations with workshops and gourmet food.  These sound like holidays for people who dabble or want to meet published writers.  They’re probably fun, but not my cigar.

Inside my retreat
This week, I’m AWOL, and have decided to give my best tips on taking a final draft retreat.  A bit practical from me, but it’s Friday the 13th so the unexpected is expected.  Just a note that research or creative retreats differ enough in environmental needs that today, it’s all about what works for the final blowout get-every-word-in-place draft.

I write from home, have cleaners come in, don’t do the cooking.  Why would I have to leave home to write?  To pare down distractions and focus my efforts.  The dryer beeps, the glads need cut, Big Nose wants petted, the post’s been delivered.  All those little daily events take my attention.  Once a week I go to the Lit & Phil, a private library in Newcastle, to escape those things.  A final draft takes days of straight concentration, and that happens best outside my daily life. 

I’ve had some fine people let me house sit, the perfect arrangement, especially if you can’t afford to rent.  This depends on friends with a congenial space that are buggering off when you need to retreat.  My experiences with house sitting have been positive, so the only caveat I can offer is pets.  I leave home to get away from the enticements of the Big Nose Dog and his feline cohorts; I wouldn’t want to pet sit as well.  People who come to my house to write often say the animals are part of the plus.  That, and the Butler’s cooking.

So house sitting, unless that’s your job, not so easy to get.  Mostly, I do self catering.  Do you choose some place inspirational, with an exciting night life?  For the final draft, I give that a big NO!  You need your butt on your chair.  If outside is too interesting, you won’t be inside.  Pretty outsides are for when you’re creating and researching, not when you polish.

Know your creature comfort needs.  You may think a yurt in some forest would be great.  For my final draft retreat, I prefer a double bed, climate control, a table where I can work, wi-fi, a cooking area.  I love a nice, deep bath, or at the very least, a power shower.  Shere Garcia-Rangel (Alliterati) says every writer needs a window.  You’ll need electric lights to extend your working day.  To avoid screen glare, I find lamps are best, preferably ones that are adjustable.

Most places won’t have an office set up.  Think about what you need to sit in a kitchen chair all day.  A stool for your feet or cushions for your rump.  DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK and do it in advance.  In all my years doing this, I’ve only had one crap host.  The rest wanted me to enjoy my stay.

My current rental is close to home, so almost no travel time and outdoor temptations can be delayed until the Butler picks me up.  More often, I choose a place I’ve always meant to visit but haven’t, interesting but not irresistibly interesting.  An exception to the dull factor is if it’s the place you’re writing about.  Then it’s like a reference book, being able to walk out the door to check details. 

Leave them at home.
Writers differ in what they need.  As my hands age, I’m more dependent on the keyboard, but I still do edits on the hard copy.  I take my laptop and printer, external backup, a few reams of paper, pens of various colours, highlighters, reference books, a camera, and my phone.  Don’t forget things like wrist supports, eye glasses and typing stands (to hold the pages you’re typing from). 

I also bring something to read at night and never read it.  It acts as a writer’s teddy bear, I suppose.

You don’t need many clothes.  You’ll be indoors, butt on chair, remember?  My usual method of culling is, what fits in the suitcase?  When I'm running away by train, I use a large suitcase for the printer and paper, plus a backpack for the laptop.  All clothing, books and toiletries have to fit around those essentials.  Socks, underwear, sweaters, are the first things to pack; I wear my heaviest jumper or shirt on the trip.  Ask if there’s laundry facilities.

If you’re not driving, pre-order groceries.  Remember, what’s left, you have to cart home or toss, so this is not the time to try new recipes or stock up.  Bring your normal three meals/day plus snacks.  You’re not as active – your butt is . . . where? – you probably won’t eat as much as you do at home.  Ask your host what things are provided – tea, milk, sugar, salt, etc. – to save bringing them.

BRING TREATS.  You deserve them.

Since I don’t cook, I bring pre-prepared meals, but to be honest, the Butler’s too good a cook for me to enjoy ready-made.  Next time, he's catering.  If you’re driving or have an insulated bag, make extra servings during the weeks before you go, freeze them to take with you.  A lot healthier and tastier than Tesco’s finest.

ALWAYS HAVE EXTRA TOILET ROLL.  Some places will start you on one roll and then you’re on your own.  The week that I go through only one roll, I’ll sign up for dialysis.  Don’t get caught out.

Lastly, don’t forget your food weirdity.  I’m an American living in the UK.  I’ve only had one rental (really lovely in Berwick-upon-Tweed) that had an acceptable coffee maker and coffee.  My current rental has tiny sachets of Nescafe which to any civilised person are an affront to God.  Because it’s so close to home, the Butler brought my coffee maker over on Day One.  Check it out before you come.  You want to reduce discomfort, so your focus can be on writing.

Retreat writing station
This may surprise you, but I let my body determine my schedule.  I get up when I get up.  I write and eat and exercise according to my body’s signals.  I go to bed when my brain gets tired. 

Saying that, on a typical run-away week, I do two rewrites on a novel length manuscript.  I don’t have fixed daily quotas, but I know how much work and time I have left.  My creative flow seems to have an internal way of handling that.  You may have to be more structured.

Writing isn’t a healthy activity.  If you’re young, you’ve probably not noticed that yet, but it really isn’t.  This is why having pillows and stools is important.  Make sure you pack all the medications you need to cope, in addition to any you normally take, including supplements.  Most rentals have a first aid kit.

Be aware of your natural rhythms.  Have strategies for times when you slump.  When I’m at home, I quit writing at 5:00pm unless I have a deadline, then I quit at 9:00pm in order to remind my family I’m still alive.  Because my writing brain is used to that regular cease fire at home, I have a glass of wine in the evening when I’m away, to keep up my sugar levels and keep me writing.  (This may have the opposite effect on you.)

I also have a lull mid-afternoon, so usually go for a walk.  My first day here, I met a woman with several bearded collies on my walk, learned their canine family tree, lamented the one who just died, got advice for buying a puppy.  I next met a man who gave me the history of his house, then took me to see the goats.  After that, I met a woman spinning wool in her front garden who’s offered to check out a fleece I have at home.  I enjoyed all those encounters - it's what writers do, isn't it? - but I’m on retreat and that was my first day; I’ve not gone on any walks since.  The weather has been obligingly helpful about that.

To walk or not to walk . . .
However, movement is essential on a marathon writing week (fortnight, month).  I’ve done Tai Chi every day instead of walking.  I use a DVD, so I don’t cheat and skip forms.  (Know your weaknesses.)  Exercise is an antidote to most slumps, so find what works for you.

DON’T FORGET TO EAT.  One of the problems with letting my body set the schedule, is I skip meals.  HYPOGLYCEMIA IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.  Bring healthy snacks and keep a bowl on your table.

DON’T FORGET YOU’VE PUT SOMETHING IN THE OVEN.  Having the fire department called is embarrassing and puts a dent your writing time.

We love them, especially new people.  NEW PEOPLE ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS, if you’re in the final drafts.  Creating?  Researching?  Great.  Wordsmithing?  They’re time thieves. 

The people who have self catering rentals usually have great interpersonal skills.  Hospitality is their livelihood.  A lot of them will be generous with their time, offer to take you around, fix meals for you, buy you a drink at the pub. 

Be judicious.  Ten minutes talking about their garden or a trip to the grocery store won’t break your writing regime, and may establish a base for continued retreats.  Drinks or dinner say you’re on holiday, not there to write.  If they know in advance I’m here to work, most people respect it. 

Phone home.
The Butler and I usually talk on the phone every night, but here, there’s no service, so we’ve relied on social media.  This is inefficient for him, because I keep the social media turned off while I write, and tempting for me, because I’ve checked it more often than usual this week.  SOCIAL MEDIA IS ALSO NOT YOUR FRIEND although it’s delightful in so many ways, I do have to admit . . .

You will be lonely, if you spend your retreat the way I’ve outlined.  Be realistic with yourself.  This isn’t boot camp.  Get a people fix if you need it.  Go for a walk if cabin fever sets in.  Spend time on Twitter to connect with semi-reality.  You have to be in an okay space emotionally, to do the work. Just don't let any of these things become your primary occupation.  Butt on chair.

DON’T FORGET TO BATHE.  At least before you go home.  Your family will thank you.