Goldilocks on the M5, and Down the Lane.

By tradition, Goldilocks is a golden-haired child prone to wandering off alone and intruding on others’ space. In fact, she was originally ‘Silverhair’ a cantankerous old woman who took umbrage when her new neighbours, the Bears, neglected to invite her to tea. In the tradition of adaptation, my Goldilocks is neither a crotchety old woman or a mischievous girl but a mature aged adventurer with feminist leanings and, as mentioned in the last post has metaphorically ‘accompanied’ me on our trip to Europe to shore up my wavering confidence.

The twenty-two-hour plane trip and the first night in Glasgow was as exciting as my partner and I thought it would be as was our train trip from Glasgow to Bristol via Edinburgh, passing, among other places, Newcastle, York and Birmingham. Our journey provided tantalising glimpses of the English countryside, as well as factories, parking lots, back yards, an odd castle or two and numerous railway stations.  DSC_0044 It also gave us a chance to meet several passengers who, as they alighted the train greeted us, chatted amicably and, when they disembarked, wished us well on our journey. Once in Bristol we collected our hire care and headed for the city of Exeter.

That was when we were confronted, finally, by difference, by peculiarity and by our foreignness; the M5, even the M4, is not a place for the faint-hearted. Australia’s population is over 24 million, which is about 3.1 people per square kilometre, though we tend to cling to the coast so traffic can be frantic and confronting, particularly in the eastern states. Britain’s population is 62 million, or 255 people per square kilometre, and on the day we drove to Exeter it seemed double that number wanted to pass us as we tentatively motored through Devon. Every other motorist was familiar with their destination, the road rules and the road signs. Even Google Maps chiming in every so often, telling us to ‘leave the roundabout, take the third exit to the A4976’, a location we had not heard of but a destination Gaynor Google-Maps (as we later dubbed her), assured us would lead to our Bed and Breakfast, left us perplexed and wary.

We misunderstood several of Gaynor’s instructions and misread road signs. My partner, who’s doing all the driving, countervailed my (and Gaynor’s) instructions, accused her of confusing him, or me of wilfully misinterpreting his questions. When we arrived at our first Bed and Breakfast we were shaken and exhausted.

The next day more ‘fun’ was had finding the magnificent Exeter Cathedral – or, in fact, a free car park nearby – and the following day, Powderham castle, which has been in the same family for one thousand years and houses the young earl, his wife and their two small children.  P1030294Both these and other venues were more than worth the hassle of locating them and even though English country laneways are narrow and lined by high hedges, we quickly learned how to pull over when confronted by a car coming in the opposite direction and the correct form for acknowledging drivers who needed to pull over for us. The lanes are no less discombobulating than the M5, but are certainly more stately in terms of speed.

In the meantime our holiday has begun, Goldilocks has returned to the land where her story first appeared and we cannot help but agree with William Blake; England, despite the M5, is a ‘green and pleasant land’, and her people are charming, generous and kind.

(This blog was written in the full awareness of the tragic events in Manchester and, more recently,  London. Our thoughts and sympathies go to the families and friends of those whose lives were tragically taken and we bear a deep respect for the spirit and valour of the people of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. May peace come to all citizens, residents and travellers who love this verdant land.)

 

Travelling Goldilocks

When I was a child I lay in bed at night wondering when the bad people would come and murder my parents, or take me away, or bomb my house. These fears, I believe, were the result of an over active imagination and going to the movies with my parents; I was an only child for ten years and my parents enjoyed watching films, so I’d go with them, often falling asleep on my father’s lap. They favoured war movies, stories of heroes from the Second World War, a war that lasted through most of their adolescence. In addition, my mother listened to the radio so I heard news bulletins about Czechoslovakia, Korea, and the Bay of Pigs crisis. Us Baby Boomers grew up knowing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for an imaginative, well-read child who spent most of her time with adults, it was easy to imagine the worst because the worst had happened in the decade before her birth. 

Alone in my bed, my anxieties would get the better of me. I’d start to weep, call my parents, and tell them my fears. They did their best to soothe me, ‘Don’t be silly,’ they’d say, ‘you’re safe with us. No one is going to hurt you. Go to sleep and stop worrying about nothing.’ My parents never wanted to make things worse, my night fears worried them, but words like ‘silly’ and ‘nothing’ facilitate anxiety instead of quenching it. I grew up ignoring my anxieties and berating myself for having them. Instead of being properly addressed, my unwelcome, unhelpful worries were fed with ‘what if?’, ‘look out,’ ‘take care’, ‘this will never work’ and ‘I’m afraid to…’.

Teaching revealed one way to cope; responsibility for the well-being and education of, initially, young children and later, adults, turned me into a manager and organiser. I learnt how to anticipate, plan for and manage contingencies. I developed, at least professionally, a range of strategies that helped me control any situation. Addressing the insidious ‘what ifs?’ became proof of my skills and an indication that I took my job and responsibilities seriously.

Personally, however, my anxieties were a liability. Firm management, detailed organisation and making sure everything goes as planned is not easy where children and family are concerned and my need for control lead to bitter conflicts.

And so, my ‘default program’ became an innate, distrustful wariness. Predators lurked on every street corner, the trappings of civilisation such as road rules, regulations concerning food, personal hygiene, and travel, to name a few, seemed like illusions designed to negate my fears, not address them.

As I age, particularly given the potentially dire state of the world, my anxiety is getting worse. A decade ago I stepped outside my comfort zone and thrived, but now I feel less inclined to do so. I recognise my methods of coping no longer work so I meditate and use mindful breathing, rational thinking and writing to help me cope.

These skills are crucial because, in the next couple of days, I am leaping out of my comfort zone and heading, with my partner, to Europe on my first major trip overseas. We’re visiting five countries in seven weeks and while this prospect is thrilling, the little girl in me wants to cower beneath her blankets and stay put.

But cowering is something I’ve done most my life. I’ve embraced the known, stuck with what is safe and celebrated the familiar and remained where I have a degree of control.

When I was researching and writing my memoir, I drew heavily on a story my parents read to me when I was three years old. I knew Goldilocks and the Three Bears by heart. If my mother changed the wording I’d correct her. As part of my doctorate I wrote a research paper that accompanied my memoir, ‘Reading Goldilocks’. I wrote that Goldilocks, ‘is a feisty, assertive, determined, [and] resourceful’ child because she refused to let an unanswered door get in her way. This aspect of Goldilocks helped me explore and embrace my skills and identity as a writer.

I have decided, therefore, to take Goldilocks with me, metaphorically at least, to Europe. If anyone knows how to walk away from what’s known and secure, it’s Goldilocks. Together we will dispel the anxiety that has hounded my preparations for this trip; we will stray far from home, enter forests made of steel and concrete or trees and glades. Yes, we will encounter a bear or two. Some beds will be too hard and while I hope we won’t break any chairs, I will want my porridge gluten free. Goldilocks and I will have a companion, my partner, to walk the trails with us. The three of us will do our best to make this trip ‘just right,’ and if we are menaced by an occasional grumpy bear we will be okay; Goldilocks knows how to safely leap from a window.

I hope you will follow us on our journey; I plan to share our adventure here on Elixir because, as Thomas Moore has written,

Standing in a doorway, you are forced into the imagination, wondering what you will find on the other side. It is a place full of expectant fantasy […] Anything of moment takes place in these intercises.

By stepping over my threshold and sharing it with you, I hope we can embrace the benefits of being mindful, and learn to live in the moment instead of suffering from illusions born of our fear.

Thomas Moore, ‘Neither Here Nor There’, Parabola, 25.1 (2000), 34-39 (p. 34).

 

Elixir has a Companion

Sometimes being concise, to the point or sparing, achieves more than being long winded or verbose.

Regular readers will remember I enjoy writing and reading short, short fiction, otherwise known as Nano, Micro, Flash or Hint fiction.  I had a modicum of success with this genre last year when one of my stories was longlisted for the joanne burns Award.

image description
image description

It was published last month in Landmarks and to celebrate I decided to create Elixir’s sister blog, Concise.

THE NEW SITE is tottering about on unsteady feet at the moment but I hope to add more stories in the next few weeks and eventually open it to other writers of short, short fiction. In the meantime, I am shamelessly flogging my new creation to all and sundry in an effort to make it feel welcome. Feel free to visit, read the stories, comment, follow the blog and share the site with your friends.

Thank you,

Janet

Reading: Why I Love to Write, Part 5

I love to write because (not that I need a reason), writing is a good reason to read …

…widely,

… deeply,

… outside my comfort zone,

… alone, on a bus, in a cafe, every day, several times a day, upon waking and before going to bed.

Reading_Library

For me, a world without books is a night sky without stars.

It’s been said before, but a writer who doesn’t read is like a cello player who refuses to practice. There is little point in picking up the bow that is a writer’s instrument, a pen, unless the hand that grips the pen (or plies the keyboard) has a book close by. If you want to write, don’t listen to anyone who tells you to avoid reading books because books will ‘influence you’, or because you may unconsciously ‘copy’ the author’s voice or style. Books, plays and poems are your teachers, even poorly constructed, banal books will teach you something valuable; what not to do. This means you must read critically, mindfully, analytically but also with abandon.

This is the final blog on this topic. A friend told me last night he was pleased I acknowledged the positive side of writing. Our world seems, lately, to strain under the weight of negativity. We know things could be better and many of us seek a path through and around our despondency. May your path be strewn with books, may it be a paper trail at the end of which is a fountain spilling over with your lovingly collected, collated and celebrated words.

Happy Writing

pen-fountain-pen-ink-gold-39065

You are welcome to share: What was your happiest writing experience?

 

 

 

Imagination: Why I love to Write, Part 4

Imagine is an ancient word, borrowed from the Old French, from the Latin ‘imaginari’, which means, ‘to picture oneself’ although imagine currently means to form a picture in one’s mind.

To write is to imagine, not just an image but an idea, thought, impression, place, even a feeling. Can you imagine being present when the words below were first uttered or written? What or who do you imagine prompted them?  What happened next?

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.

Henry David Thoreau

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.

Albert Einstein

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power to that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

J. K. Rowling

Communication: Why I love to Write, Part 3

I love to write because I am fascinated by the process of communication.

Some of us are born communicators: for these folk, starting a conversation with a stranger is easy and listening to a friend’s woes comes naturally. I learned to communicate when I trained as a junior primary (elementary) teacher, because my job meant I would have to walk into a classroom, ‘engage the learner’ and, in the process, teach that learner how to communicate via both the spoken and written word. But that doesn’t mean communicating with others is easy for me, it’s just a skill I acquired.

I was told communication is made up of three basic components: the Sender, the Receiver and the Message. Several years later, at a communication workshop, I discovered it’s not that simple. There are many things that interfere with the clear, harmonious exchange of information, ideas and feelings:

  • The Sender’s intent, mood, attitude, education, language skills and even their appearance,
  • The Receiver’s willingness to hear the message, their  mood, attitude, education, command of language, their appearance and relationship with the sender,
  • How the Message is sent, whether verbally or via a letter, text, email, photograph or emoji,
  • How skillfully, or otherwise, the Message is composed; its content, tone and the style of language used. In the case of written messages, the quality of the grammar and punctuation is crucial. In one-to-one verbal communication the receiver and sender’s ‘non-verbal’ language, what we used to call ‘body language,’ is a major part of the message exchange, which is why it has been replaced, in texts and emails, by emojis.
Given these variables, it is a wonder we manage to communicate with each other at all.

What has this got to do with writing, creative or otherwise? I am always aware, as I write, that I want to communicate something; an idea, a feeling, an image, an incident. I spend much of my writing time ensuring my message is ‘clear’ and easily understood. I realise this sometimes gets in the way of ‘art’ and I should forget about the receiver (my ‘ideal’ reader) and remain true to the creative impulse, to what compels me to write, to the act of creation …

… I’m writing at my dining table. The morning sun pours in but it’s nevertheless a cool winter’s day. I am anxious to finish this blog because I am meeting a friend for lunch. The palm outside the window casts spear shaped shadows across the batik table cloth. The spears distract me, irritate me. Looking through the glass I see the window is dirty, a cobweb defaces the upper right corner of the frame. When am I going to find the time to clean the windows and tidy the garden before we head to Europe? Yes, we’re going to Europe at the end of the month. I don’t like flying and I’m steeling myself for the flight. We’re visiting six countries in seven weeks; the longest time we’ll spend in one place is Ireland. Thrill and agitation sit at my shoulder as I prepare for this trip, as I am arrested by the burnished blue jewel that is my winter sky; friends tell me the first thing I’ll notice when I arrive in Glasgow is the quality of light. In less than a month, I will walk beneath northern skies. In France, Italy and Greece I will not possess any words, my messages will dissolve, I will hallucinate before each indecipherable sign. Who will I be if I cannot communicate …?

… I know I will learn. I trust I will find a way to communicate, just as I do every time I sit at my computer and write.

 

Thinking: Why I love to Write, Part 2

What happens when you put a writer into a fMRI Scanner and map their brain while they write? A team from the Functional Imaging Unit, at the Institute for Diagnostic Radiology and Neuroradiology, and their colleagues from the Institute for Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism, both in Germany, had twenty-eight writers to do just that. (1)  The researchers wanted to know which areas of the brain ‘light up’ during a creative writing session. Each writer brainstormed a story and then wrote ‘a new and creative continuation of a given literary text’,(2). The task is based on a modified version of Linda Flower and John R. Hayes’s model of the process involved in creative writing.

It was found that

 ‘‘brainstorming’’ involves fronto-parieto-temporal brain activity for generating novel and original ideas and composing the concept of the story. The observed premotor activity in ‘‘brainstorming’’ indicates the integrated preparation of the writing process. ‘‘Creative writing’’ combines handwriting processes and cognitive writing processes, which are predominantly associated with episodic memory, semantic integration, and a free associative and spontaneous cognitive text production. (p13)

The researchers also investigated the verbal aspect of ‘‘creative writing’’ and found it involved the left fronto-temporal network.

I’m not a neuroscientist, so the significance of these specific networks is lost on me, and Flower and Hayes’ theory of how writers approach their craft is not the only one. The point is, science confirms what writers have always known: writers are thinkers and writing is thinking on the page. It’s tempting to associate ‘creativity’ with magic, mysticism and even ‘divine inspiration’. It can certainly feel like that when writing goes well. Scientific studies confirm, however, that creative writing is the result of perception, learning, reason, analysis and critical thinking.

As studies of the brain continue, neuroscientists will provide detailed information about how writers write. I hope these studies are combined with investigations into how the brain develops, reacts to and heals post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems. Maybe then we will understand why and how therapeutic writing works. For now, to paraphrase John Lennon, it is enough to know that when writers write their brains ‘shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun’ and that is why I love to write.

 

References

Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes, ‘A cognitive process theory of writing’ in College composition and communication, 32.4 (1981), pp. 365-387.

Shah, Carolin, et al. ‘Neural correlates of creative writing: an fMRI study’ in Human Brain Mapping, 34.5 (2013), pp. 1088-1101.

Solitude: Why I love to Write, Part 1

I spend too much time complaining about writing instead of sharing its joys. Yes, writing is a gruelling task but because sitting in front of the computer and writing can be rewarding, the next few posts will celebrate writing and focus on its joys and benefits.

Let’s start with solitude. It’s good to spend time alone, to sit at a table, whether in an elegant, light-filled study or the local cafe, and relax, breathe, play with different methods of ordering and recording one’s thoughts and experience the thrill of catching an image, emotion or character. Writing is a way to listen deeply to the self and to the messages life scatters along our path: what to make of that recent dinner party? Why did that person behave so strangely? What were the elderly couple on the bus whispering to each other? Writing is a way to sift through the feelings, images and conversations of each day and share them with the page and maybe a reader or two.

William Wordsworth once wrote:

When from our better selves we have too long
been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
how gracious, how benign, is solitude.

‘The Prelude’, from Book IV “Summer Vacation”

The opportunity to write in solitude (even in a busy cafe) is a double blessing, and one of the many joys of writing.

Decisions and Revisions

There is time

for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. (1)

2017 has been quite a year. I contracted a virus on the 1st January, which was followed by back problems that began the week the virus released its grip. Naturally, keeping a blog let alone maintaining a ‘normal’ life has been a challenge.

As a result, I decided to take a break from writing and considered suspending Elixir and focusing on creative writing, specifically Flash, Hint and Short fiction. However, when it came to deleting my posts and letting go of Elixir and the significance of therapeutic writing, I just couldn’t do it.

I have, therefore, revised my decision; Concise will be a companion blog to Elixir. The former will be an outlet for my own, and I hope others’, creative short fiction. The latter will continue to be personal and reflective, and explore the growing significance of therapeutic writing and art therapy as a healing tool. I want to research and share information about organisations like Art Therapy Without Borders, which provides hope and assistance to a range of people; Lapidus, which focusses specifically on writing for wellbeing; and The Institute for Creative Health, an

independent, not for-profit Australian organisation that advocates for the arts to be delivered within health and social service organisations and the broader community.

 

Elixir has also connected me to blogs like Impromptu Promptlings and Peculiar Ponderings and a positive friendship with the inimitable Calensariel. Through WordPress I discovered Dr Sharon Blackie’s blog, website, books and courses. Closer to home is Raili at Soul Gifts, who creates magic with words, and sites like Spoon You Fork Me. There are dozens of other fascinating blogs listed to the right of this post that expand my universe and enliven my days.

Blogging is, indeed, a blessing.

But like any task, writing a blog can be a curse. There’s the unforgiving blank page; the words that, when they finally arrive, refuse to arrange themselves coherently. How, then, can I imagine I will write two blogs? That’s the point, I can’t imagine it so I won’t try. I’ll give it a go and see what happens. I can’t let go of Elixir and I can’t shake off the idea of Concise so I have to explore the possibility of writing both.

One of my favourite poems, from which the line at the beginning of this blog is taken, is T. S. Elliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ (I wonder what the ‘J’ stands for?) Prufrock is, like me, growing old and he laments the often tedious ‘evenings, mornings, afternoons …’ he has spent and wonders how he will

spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

other than to be what he has always been:

an attendant lord … Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse.

Eliot was none of this; he was a consummate poet. I do not (for many reasons) aspire to be like Eliot. I am content, like Prufrock, to be

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-

Almost, at times, the Fool …

If it is foolish to write two blogs, one reflective and personal the other a collection of self-published short, narrative fiction, then so be it. I understand that in both cases it may be ‘impossible to say just what I mean’ but I believe it is foolish to give up entirely, to let go of my dreams. Like Prufrock, I cannot help listening to the mermaid’s song, I cannot know what is feels like to lose myself in the mystical, magical and creative ‘chambers of the sea.’

sea-running

‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot.

Find the first edition of Concise here: https://concisedotblog.wordpress.com/

 

On Being Concise

new-pic-2Elixir was created from a desire to reflect on therapeutic writing and its benefits. Its reception has been encouraging and I have enjoyed writing the blog and reading your comments.

Elixir helped me test and develop my writing skills, and gave me the confidence to continue.

I believe, however, that it no longer fulfils my needs as a writer.

Perhaps it’s time stop taking medicine and accept the healing has happened?

Elixir has a companion page, ‘Sparks’, containing five short, short stories or, as I like to call them, hint fiction. ‘The Listening Place’ and ‘Neo Natal’ were recently read at the Quart Short Literary Reading Nights, Autumn Shorts 2017. Another of my pieces of flash fiction, ‘Underpass’ has been published in Landmarks. These modest successes reflect my passion for condensed, intense, concentrated stories, a genre that promotes carefully constructed, abbreviated but powerful narrative moments.

Elixir, therefore, will give way to Concise, an occasional magazine of flash fiction, hint fiction and short stories.  I will initially publish my own work, then gradually introduce the work of friends and fellow enthusiasts of the genre. Later this year I will call for written ‘pitches’ of no more than 500 words. Should your pitch be successful I will ask you to send your short story and, if it is suitable, publish it in Concise although I won’t be able to pay writers.

But more of that later; for now, expect to see, in the next week or two, changes to the look and content of this blog. If, because of the change in name, you lose the link, you will find me here: janetgthomas.com

An elixir was thought capable of curing all ills as well as being a mythical substance with the power to create gold from base metals. Concise is not a quest for gold; it is a search for compact, creative, evocative and meaningful short narratives that will challenge, inspire and entertain. Being concise is a potent way to share our precious and provocative moments.