Gold Stars and Marble Jars

I am tired and restless, starting to fret about my work and whether it is (in all the ways!) enough, even as my mind appears hellbent on becoming a perpetual acceleration machine. This would be more concerning were I not a meticulous tracker of the ‘seasonality’ of my mental and emotional energies. Consulting my journal, I see a pattern of steadily increasing pitch through late winter and spring, which reaches peak intensity (subject to a variable degree of discordancy) in summer, followed by an abrupt plummet, then a minor revival in autumn before the next-to-nothing-doing of early winter (or, as more accurately reflects my perception of it, several months of November).

Perhaps perversely, then, winter is ‘my’ season. My worst episodes of depression and/or anxiety have occurred in the summer. Perhaps the excess of it overwhelms me. The garden turning to jungle when I turn my back on it for five minutes. The trees pulling the sky down with their leaves. The insufferable heat. Weeks of poor sleep. Worst of all,the inescapable human noise: lawn mowers, strimmers, neighbours’ music clashing and roiling like the meeting of oceans. The nauseating reek of charred flesh and smoke. Everything comes too close, is too loud, too bright. That aside, I like the long-light days. I like taking a table and chair into the garden to work. I love the abundance of fresh fruit (Cherries! Apricots! Oh, doughnut peaches!)

I am reluctant to inquire too closely into the ramifications of apparently working most intensely when I am leaping out of my skin. I had another mentoring session with Pascale recently, discussing the twenty new poems I’d sent her. It was a ragtag collection of episodes from childhood, an ambivalent attitude towards my kitchen, and strange half-bird beings. Of those that Pascale judged the strongest, the majority began from prompts from the Zoom sessions I attended for NaPoWriMo, during which I was far from my comfort zone. The best poems in themselves unnerve me; there is something Other about them. But I have learnt to recognise that if the work is worth doing, it will scare me. And the only effective way I know for dealing with that fear is to crack on with the work.

It’s not all existential angst! Considering seasonality, I wonder to what extent I have simply not outgrown the school year. I like best to write in cheap exercise books. Perhaps I am still writing poems and stories for Mr Furze from Class 4, so he will reward me with an actual pen to copy them up ‘in best’ to be stapled on sugar-paper to the wall display. There’s a child here somewhere hungry for encouragement and recognition. To that end I have acquired a packet of gold stars and a jar of marbles. I put a gold star on the calendar every day I have written. I place a marble in the jar for every complete hour I have written. The marble jar is filling with gratifying speed. The calendar begins to resemble a small galaxy. Yes, it is silly. But it might just keep me going until the kilo boxes of cherries are back in Tescos.

Zooming, stumbling, feeling the way

So. I’ve gone from being a Zoom newbie in March to attending five sessions in one week: two for NaPoWriMo; a mentoring catch-up meeting with Juliette from Dialect; the first of six Poetry and Journalling workshops; and Writers’ HQ’s weekly ‘flash face-off’ event’s 1st birthday party.

I have mixed feelings about Zoom. Yes, it makes ‘things’ possible (and I have attended readings and festivals etc. that were out of the question, pre-pandemic). But it does resemble an open-plan office. I find myself stressing about inefficiency every time the chat strays off-topic.

I do realise it is about more than getting work done and being efficient. And I do value being in a room with others who ‘get’ the writing thing, especially the poetry thing. I miss the monthly writing days with Writers’ HQ (and not just because of the sandwiches and cake, though that was obviously a draw). One of my worries about the mentoring is that when it comes to an end I will be returned to my disconnected, isolated routine, writing in a vacuum. I love my ‘anchorage’ and my solitude: loneliness is another matter altogether.

I would be more at ease on Zoom if I were good at making witty, insightful, or even coherent observations off the cuff. I like to consider things, have a good long think about them. I need to write things down (or draw, or paint them) to make sense of them. It surprises me this isn’t more of a writer-thing. The Whisperer, of course, tells me my lack of immediate response is construed as rudeness or stupidity. To my discredit, it’s the charge of ‘stupidity’ that bothers me the more of the two.

In more tech-related news, I have belatedly bought (pardon me, invested in!) a new tablet. My ancient laptop has become, at this point, a magic typewriter with email. I underestimated the degree to which it was exhausting me, all the hours spent peering into the screen of my phone. In the past fortnight, my new kit has gone from being a complete revelation to almost invisibility.

There is rather a lot of writing being done. In one week I have written good drafts of five new poems, all of them begun from prompts in the Zoom sessions. I am not necessarily writing the collection I thought I was, though. Some of the new pieces clearly belong to it, but other stuff is tugging at my sleeve, too. Is this a distraction? A new direction? I don’t know. Maybe I need to get these things out of my system, to clear the way for what I am meant to be writing. What I do not want to do at this stage is to veto anything.

In the corner, in the spotlight

Thinking about The Man Who Fell To Earth while waiting to have the light of ten suns fired at my retinas is not the wisest move but my mood is sufficiently buoyant I decide I can risk indulging in a brief, carefully contained, catastrophising session. No harm done.

It’s funny how opticians always remark on my distance-vision: we might see one like you a year… . There’s a metaphor here, no doubt, but it must be right under my nose. It’s an effort to bring it into focus. I come away with a prescription for new reading glasses, with light-sensitive lenses so I can take my books into the garden next time April stops reminiscing about January and gets on with the business of ‘breeding lilacs out of the dead land’ etc. Several days later and I have yet to get my ‘sea-legs’ with these glasses. While I’ve got my nose in a book they’re grand. But I forget I’m wearing them and am halfway down the stairs before dizziness catches up with me and I have to grab the banister and re-calibrate.

***

Last Sunday I attended my first poetry workshop, on Zoom, for NaPoWriMo. It was…challenging! I must stress there is nothing wrong with the group: they seem nice people. But everyone apparently already knew everyone else and there was a lot of chat and, as usual, I kept my distance, wondering what I was doing there, observing my fellow-humans as if they are an alien species. I am not unfriendly but neither am I sociable. I lack the talent for (and, if I am honest, an interest in) small talk. I miss my cues and by the time I’ve figured out what I’m meant to have said, the conversation has moved on. It took many years for me to be anything like at ease with myself on this account. To accept my quietness and not take on other people’s potential discomfort as something that I am responsible for alleviating. Not least because I’m a poet, for God’s sake: it’s not my job to fit in and make everyone feel nice and cosy! However, successive lockdowns have left me out of practice. I considered leaving the session, especially when the main writing prompt assumed a shared experience I don’t have. I didn’t leave: I worked some more on a previous prompt (and have since written two drafts of a poem) and even spoke up and shared something at the end, though to do so is like coaxing pears from a willow tree. I am determined to give it at least one more go, and see if it gets any easier.

UPDATE: I attended a second session yesterday and actually enjoyed it, even when we went into break-out groups and there was no corner to hide in!  And I came away with the rough beginnings of two more poems.

***

On Wednesday afternoon I went to the Cotswold Playhouse in Stroud to record my story for Stroud Short Stories’ next event, to be broadcast on YouTube on 9th May. Strangely, sitting in an upstairs office in front of a camera and microphone, I was more nervous than the previous time reading live on stage to an audience. Perhaps because then I deliberately shifted into ‘performance mode’ whereas this time I still felt like ‘ordinary me’. If my voice is a little nerve-strangled at times I do at least have the consolation that it fits the story. (I hope I have not over-compensated and delivered my poor words like the Ten Commandments coming down from the mountain-top.) I don’t get a preview. I will watch ‘my bit’ from behind the sofa but I can’t wait to hear the other stories!