A Certain Pride?

She thinks it’s here again. The signs are familiar: sleeping well but waking up exhausted; not eating properly; not exercising; refusing social invitations. She promises herself she’ll resume a regular working routine, but sits at her computer for hours, playing Solitaire or reading blogs about  … depression.

She can’t remember the first time she thought, ‘I am depressed,’ but she remembers the first time she knew she’d beaten depression. She was eating dinner with friends, women friends, and she laughed at something one of them said and was surprised by the feel of laughter deep in her stomach where the depression once lodged.

This is a lie, of course. She had postnatal depression once, but she never counts that because, well …  hormones, the middle of winter, one small child and a baby that cried a lot, a cold house, her mother visiting, not to help but to sit at the kitchen table and reassure her, ‘everything will be fine as soon as you establish a routine,’ before demanding coffee, cake and attention.

People always want her attention.

She gives them what they need.

So, this new incarnation: depression number four. Or maybe five. Six? Why bother counting. It’s best to deal with it (she has learned not to say ‘cure’). She’s had counselling. Three times? Four? CBT the third time, mindfulness-based the last time. That helped. And for postnatal depression, hypnotism, which worked well. For a time.

She refuses to take drugs. Both she and her mother appear genetically compromised by antidepressants. They aggravate the malady, in her case to the point of paranoia. The doctors tell her to give it time, let the drugs work, but she throws them away. She knows people who have been on antidepressants almost their entire adult life.  She does not condemn, simply knows drugs are her highway to mental incapacity.

Maybe she’s learned to be a functioning depressive the way addicts function on a diet of alcohol, a load of cannabis or a needle full of heroin?

Maybe depression is her drug of choice?

She’ll stick to meditation, mindfulness, start exercising again, eating properly, call a friend and share lunch with them.

Or not. She learned to be quiet and read while her mother wept in the bedroom. She learned to disappear into her head when her mother raged at her, told her she was a naughty, ungrateful, undeserving, selfish monster.

But she could never completely vanish.

She takes a certain pride in surviving bouts of  depression. She thought of suicide once, when she lived close to the railway and decided to take a blanket, lie across the rails and sleep, let the 5:00 am from the coast finish her off, but she knew she’d hear the rumble of the coming train, change her mind, struggle with the blanket and the stones between the rails, scramble up in an undignified pyjama-clad effort to live and the train wouldn’t stop. She gave the idea away.

If depression is a function of the mind (or is it the brain?), then she uses her mind/brain to solve her problem. She knows the systemic causes of her depression: being a woman in a patriarchal society; the insidious backward bend of world politics to Fascism; the lack of gainful employment.

And knowing she is never good enough or clever as, witty as, compassionate as and as careful as everyone she knows, and thousands more people she will never know.

She decides to research the Four Temperaments (she once dabbled in Astrology – an ancient gesture towards counselling) and believes she can, occasionally, be Sanguine or confidently optimistic and cheerful. She’s more often moved to anger, so she’s probably Choleric and certainly Phlegmatic; she is rarely composed and willingly displays and shares her emotions.  Maybe, she thinks, expressing emotions and Melancholia go together? Is that why some friends, family, and colleagues prefer she not ‘wear her heart on her sleeve’.

But why have a heart if you cannot display it?

Like everything, Astrology failed to provide an answer her mind could accept.  Astrology is the art of variables. She loved its subtleties, how it drew her down wondrous paths to glorious revelation or dry dead ends. But Astrology couldn’t answer all her questions.

Like an aesthete revisiting her favourite cathedral or a beloved painting, she decides to embrace Melancholia. To hold the child she was, she is, in loving regard, to soothe and indulge, to wipe away and store each tear in her cask of wisdom.

She knows it’s here again: depression. She  must welcome it, absorb its lessons, let it fold her in a mutual embrace.

Today’s Footnote: ‘I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.’ Charles Baudelaire


Please note: The above is a work of fiction and this blog in no way argues against the taking of prescribed antidepressants. If you suffer from depression, seek help from your doctor, counselor or local Lifeline or Mental Health Agency.

At the End there is a Beginning

This is Elixir’s last post. My decision to quit blogging comes from long consideration and  research into why people abandon their blogs. Like many others, I found the routine of writing a regular post onerous and I have also lost interest in my topic.

Blogging is a new genre with its own sub genres, literary styles and rules. The expectations of both readers and bloggers are different to the expectations of novelists or short story writers, and their readers. Authors usually encounter their readers through letters or emails, writing festivals or book launches and although most modern authors acknowledge the writer/reader relationship is more embodied and frequent than in the past, bloggers depend on ongoing, long term and immediate responses from their readers/subscribers.

I began this blog because I wanted to find such an audience – and, thanks to my subscribers I have – but blogging is a reciprocal art; a successful blogger is also an avid reader of other blogs, something I didn’t know before I started this blog. Networking is an extrovert’s idea of heaven but I’ve become more introverted in the last three years, so networking is my definition of hell. I’ve also discovered that the upside of the close and direct writer/reader relationship is immediate and honest feedback, while the downside is the temptation to write for the audience, instead of writing from the heart, or taking artistic and creative risks.

I also prefer reading books than blogs, and as I’ve only ever written one letter to a novelist (a friend of mine) I am not invested in contacting every writer I admire.  Keeping up with other blogs steals time I prefer to spend reading books, writing flash fiction and short stories and working on my novel.

I’ve been blogging for two and a half years, the recommended period for giving a blog a ‘good try’. I once looked forward to writing my  blog; I now find it a chore akin to driving to work or attending a meeting out of habit rather than necessity.

I will continue to write. As regular readers of Elixir know, I’ve written all my life, but only recently called myself a writer who spends her days writing. I am working on several short stories, a novel, two ideas for a play, and an essay. What I am working on may never find readers, but that’s not the point. At the risk of sounding pretentious – oh, what the heck, I don’t care if I sound pretentious – it’s the artistic endeavour I enjoy. I love the act of fitting words together, composing appealing sentences, and forming clear, resolute and provocative thoughts and ideas that excite me. Blogging no longer fulfils that need.

As the title of this post indicates, I don’t see starting and quitting this blog as a failure but an opportunity to grow and learn as a writer. I am moving on to a new phase of learning. I am not sure what that entails but I’m excited by the prospect.Tote

In this last blog I want to acknowledge my generous readers, particularly Cheryl over at Impromptu Promptlings and Peculiar Ponderings, my dear friend C who inspired this blog and my partner who encouraged me and edited my posts. You have challenged and inspired me; your friendships are like charming, pleasant and challenging sentences that give me pause and spur me on. I will forever cherish your support.

Thanks also to my other readers and to the bloggers whose posts I have read. I am sorry if I did not always respond to what you wrote but I have enjoyed your blogs and wish you joy with your writing.

 

 

 

 

Worth the Risk?

Four days ago I posted the last of twelve pieces of flash fiction on Elixir’s sister site, Concise. I enjoyed the exercise although I gleaned only a few more followers for Concise. Attracting more readers was not, however,  the point of the exercise. My purpose was to (re)establish a daily writing habit. Risk Writing01

The abiding theme of my life is my struggle to write on a regular basis. I understand what I need: willpower; a room of my own; the cognitive, emotional and psychological space needed to write; and the self-belief necessary to shut the door on my partner, my family and my friends. I also need to combine the above with imagination, knowledge of craft and technique, and a vast reading history – because good writers read for pleasure and to learn from other writers. It’s all about commitment, really, and to commit is to ‘join, practise, entrust,’ and to ‘expose to risk. ‘ (OED).

To write, particularly to write and publish (in whatever form) can be risky. Is it acceptable, for example, for writers risk their relationships when no one reads what they write or don’t like the writer’s work?

I wonder how many writers have lost sleep over that question?

On the other hand, I read, many years ago, that if writing is hard then not writing is harder. Writing, like any art, always carries with it a degree of difficulty. The hours can be long, the loneliness alienating, the editing debilitating and the lack of financial return demoralising. Writers are known for ignoring their loved ones, compromising their health, and agonizing over book sales or their blog’s statistics.

But the alternative – not writing – is to risk losing your soul.

I committed to writing late in life. I tried and failed for years to avoid the truth of my obsession with stringing words together. So, yes, writing and posting twelve short, short stories has been worthwhile, not only because it helped me re-establish a regular daily writing habit but because it helped me reflect, once more, on why I enjoy writing, and it has nothing to do with gathering vast numbers of readers or followers.

In writing, a ‘theme’ is the underlying significance of the story or novel, its relevance, how it relates to life in all its manifestations. I was wrong when I said, above, that the abiding theme of my life is my struggle to write on a regular basis. I understand now that the underlying theme of my life has been avoiding risk.

This reminds of my favourite quotation, one I’d print out and display in various office spaces I worked in over the last thirty years:

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.

Katherine Mansfield
New Zealand author (1888 – 1923)

Mansfield’s quotation gradually helped me ignore my fears; I am a writer because I enjoy, most of the time, the complex and often troublesome task of communicating my ideas. I have also found that acting for myself is worth the risk. Risk Writing02

What is the ‘theme’ of your writing life? What do you give up in order to write?

Time to Share

I don’t normally share or reblog posts but today I want to encourage you to have a look at my friend and colleague, Ben Brooker’s, new blog, Kate’s Words, and then go over to Brevity and see what they’re up to.

Ben is a respected critic, essayist, playwright and author of many published short stories and poems. Several of his reviews are featured on his original blog, Marginalia. Given his interests, Ben’s writing style is invariably precise, rigorously researched, and intellectually subtle and balanced. In Kate’s Words,  Ben plans to slough off scholarly strictures and relax his writing muscles. I’m eager to see what his blog produces and very tempted to follow his lead. I also like the premise – have a friend send you a word and free write on the word to see what emerges.

Because I cannot find a definition of  ‘free writing’ in my normally trusty Oxford English Dictionary (Grrr, OED) I have to resort to Wikipedia, which defines free writing as

a prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic. It produces raw, often unusable material, but helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and self-criticism. It is used mainly by prose writers and writing teachers.

This article gives you a deeper idea of what freewriting is and the angst often connected with trying to do it in the classroom. I admire Ben’s willingness to share his free writing because I am usually a bit ‘precious’ about what I write. As Peter Elbow writes in his article,

I’m a bit ambivalent about shared or public freewriting. On the one hand
I tend to avoid it in favor of private writing. For I find most people’s writing has suffered because they have been led to think of writing as something they must always share with a reader; thus we need more private writing. On the other hand I love the sharing of freewriting – for the community of it and for the learning it produces. It’s so reassuring to discover that unplanned, unstudied writing is worth sharing.

Peter Elbow
‘Toward a Phenomenology
of Freewriting’, p 52.

So, Ben, if you’re reading this, send me a word and I’ll try to be brave enough to share one piece of unplanned, unedited, raw work.

This allows me to segue into the second blog I wish to share, Brevity,favourite of mine because it features (carefully edited) short creative nonfiction, sometimes known as narrative nonfiction. Brevity recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and it’s currently running a series of fascinating blogs where, as Shane Borrowman the editor of The <750> Project explains, four authors

return to a previous publication and take on the task of either shortening their piece or expanding it.

Asking writers to modify a previous article is a bold move, and the writers are to be admired because of their willingness to do so publicly. It is also a brilliant way to help beginning writers, indeed all writers, improve and enhance their practice. I hope you take the time to check it out. The first example can be found here.

In the meantime, over at Elixir’s sister blog Concise, I have stuck to my routine of writing and posting a piece of flash fiction every two days. I’ve posted five stories and there’s two more to go; I cannot continue the project indefinitely because running two blogs and sending other pieces to competitions is about as much as I can handle at the moment.  I have, however, really enjoyed the exercise and I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories.

Your Comments:

What do you think of Ben’s method for loosening up his writing? What is your favourite writing prompt or activity? What do you think of Brevity’s <750> Project? Have you ever tried to shorten or lengthen a piece of writing? How did it feel and what did you learn?

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Meanwhile, over on Concise …

During my recent trip and since my return, Concise, my companion blog has languished. To remedy this, and to exercise my ‘writing muscles’, I plan to post, every second day for fourteen days, one of my short, short stories on Concise. Yes, I hope to attract more readers to the blog but I also need to reboot my daily writing practice and maybe this method will inspire me and intrigue others.

Please go on over to Concise and take a look. I’d appreciate it if you share my stories with your readers, comment on the tales either here or on Concise (writers love feedback, particularly if it is constructive), and subscribe to Concise. If you write short stories or Flash Fiction, drop me a line, I’d love to have more guest bloggers, or perhaps write a post/short story for your blog. Concise_Write

I don’t plan to preempt all of my stories, but today’s post on Concise is, I think, about a woman who learns how to commit herself. I hope you enjoy it.

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.

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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

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

 

 

 

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.

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.