Work or much punish

Do you remember Tenko? (Are you old enough to remember?) It was an ongoing drama series about a women’s PoW camp. Mum tuned in every week, as much for the location as for the story; it was filmed in the far from far-flung locale of south Dorset, not five miles from where we lived. I was too young for it really: little remains besides a memory of the Japanese guards constantly admonishing the women: work or much punish!

My husband asked me recently how I encourage myself. Well, that stumped me! Thinking about it, I discovered that I do not: what I do is push myself through unpleasant or challenging tasks or situations and, when they are done, I give myself some kind of reward for good behaviour. (It’s usually book-related.) I am aware of the reasons behind this but still it rattled me to be faced with it. Like many another, I have an exhausting habit of constant striving. There is never enough time to do everything that needs to be done and no matter how hard I work, it is not sufficient. I do not know how to stop, how to rest.

Last week I sent a second batch of twenty poems to Pascale ahead of our next mentoring session this weekend. My story “The Blue in the Black of His Wing”, for Stroud Short Stories, was on YouTube. (Here is the link : I made myself watch it. Lockdown hair aside, it’s not too terrible.) There were more notifications on Twitter than I have ever had and… I wanted to run away from it all! I do not know what to do with encouragement. It’s not that I think people are reverse-trolling me in some fashion (is that even a thing?!). It’s not even that I think they’re displaying a lapse of good judgement. I simply do not know how to handle encouragement.

I catch myself daydreaming about the cottage in Pembrokeshire we rented for a week a couple of years back. I walked to the small beach every morning before breakfast. There was never anybody else there. Several times I swam. Then I’d soak in the bath in the greenish underwater light that filtered through the shrubs around the window and, when I’d stopped shivering, I’d make a pot of tea and eat golden turmeric porridge from a blue bowl and, turn it whichever way I liked, there was no escaping the realisation that I was happy.

I am having a difficult week. I am tired. I am so far beyond ‘peopled-out’. I can’t remember when I last took time off. Come Sunday, I will switch off all my devices for the day. I will shut the door. I will have a lovely indecisive time choosing which of my new books to read first (thank you, Waterstones!) and drink endless cups of tea.

Fear is a super power

You know that ice-breaker question, if you had a super-power, what would it be? I usually pick photosynthesis. I like my food, but just think of all the time it would free up: no more planning, sourcing, prepping, cooking and clearing up after meals. I could repurpose the kitchen cupboards as (yet more) bookshelves. I suppose I’d have to get used to green skin. That is less appealing, though anyone who wants to test my anger management skills by referring to my 5’1” frame as Hulk, give it a go. Although… in winter I am already a pale blue, which in summer becomes a startling white that reddens after twenty minutes beneath an overcast sky. I could adapt.

I hadn’t given much consideration to anxiety as a potential super-power. But now I think of it, residual traces of OCD in my system have likely helped keep me safe from Covid-19 these past twelve months. (For the record, I am NOT washing and sanitising my hands more than usual. We don’t all begin on the same starting-line: some of us are further round the bend than others.) But perhaps a long-term relationship with anxiety has put me in the novel position of feeling like the sanest person in the room as repeated lockdowns wreak havoc with the mental health of the populace at large. I have accidentally been in training for this for years.

And then I was awarded this mentoring opportunity. I was indeed anxious at the prospect of discussing my poems, in detail, with Pascale. Actually, I was anxious enough to wake at 5am for a 3pm Zoom meeting. But when everything has the potential to trigger the anxiety response, facing something properly scary doesn’t necessarily become the grand drama it would otherwise be.

Pascale is thorough! I’d sent her 25 poems and she talked about each one. I was delighted (if ‘delighted’ is a synonym for ‘incredulous’) when she called a handful of them ‘stunners’ and said she had no improvements to suggest. She talked me through some writing exercises I might try, for generating new work. And then we spent the rest of the three hours discussing how best to edit and improve ‘good’ poems. Primarily by being less abstract and removing anything that hinders the rapidity of the line (and by not introducing famous painters halfway through a poem only to drop them two lines later. Or having a seagull utter a phrase stolen from the mouth of a tetchy academic. How to goodness did I not notice those howlers?! The horror!) I had no idea how I would respond to having my work critiqued. Pascale did so with good humour, sensitivity and care. By the end of the three hours, I was mentally exhausted but emotionally buoyant. It is such a privilege to see my poems through her eyes. And as for hearing her read them back to me… .

Since then I have read through Pascale’s notes and made a rough schedule for ‘fixing’ those poems. I wrote a (terrible) draft of a poem using only one vowel (from one of Pascale’s exercises). I started two new pieces. I realised the enormity of the task ahead of me and felt briefly overwhelmed but mostly excited. I have so much work to do! I stepped into the unknown and booked a series of six poetry workshops.

I also sent two stories to Stroud Short Stories, one of which went on to be longlisted while the other was chosen to be broadcast on YouTube on 9th May. I have been invited to record it at the Cotswold Playhouse later this month. I am delighted. Having my story chosen and reading at SSS’s event in November 2019 was a turning point for me. It was a timely and much needed confirmation that I might actually be quite good at this writing malarkey. I was also astonished to discover that, despite threatening to go out-of-body with nerves (I was the ninth of ten readers that night), I loved being on stage and reading to an audience. Good memories, and positive things to take forward.

The Truth and Several Lies About Butterflies

I was delighted to take part in Mazurka and Other Stroud Short Stories, at the Cotswold Playhouse for Stroud Book Festival. I read my first published fiction since primary school, “The Truth and Several Lies About Butterflies”.

Thank you to judges John Holland (of Stroud Short Stories) and Chloe Turner for seeing merit in my story and inviting me to read. Thank you to Tim Byford for the fierce author photograph and for recording the event, which can be viewed here

Mazurka and Other Stroud Short Stories

I will be reading my story, The Truth and Several Lies About Butterflies, at the Stroud Short Stories event at Stroud Book Festival on Sunday.

Also reading are: Peter Adams, Sallie Anderson, Ali Bacon, Georgia Boon, Nimue Brown, Philip Douch, Sophie Flynn, Sarah Hitchcock, and Rick Vick.