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.

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?

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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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

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.

The Chairman

Photo: Caleb George

Everyone hoped he’d make some changes, do the right thing because Jacinta was one of the 30%: tall, attractive, well-educated and highly motivated.

‘Jacinta handled her promotion exceptionally well,’ he said finally.  ‘She did exactly what we asked. Pruned the  inefficient members of her team without too big a stir. Shifted three more staff into different departments and dealt competently with the complaints. The new work practices she introduced are spot on. I thought them unusual at the time but productivity has certainly improved.

work-practices
Photo: Jeffrey Betts

I’m going to ask her to run an in-house seminar. Outline her methods, give the department heads an idea of what’s possible. She can help them implement her ideas. Her people skills are excellent. Her entire staff attended her wedding last month, as did I. Great food and an excellent band. Yes, Jacinta Freeman, now Mrs Jacinta Walton, has served this company well.’

chairman_board
Photo Mary Whitney

The board held its collective breath. ‘So I’m positive Jacinta will understand; it’s Geoff Hardcastle’s turn, despite his recent troubles.  When your wife gives birth to twins, that makes things … difficult. But the twins are, what? A year old now? Mia Hardcastle was at Jacinta’s wedding, she was beaming, coping,  she said, really well.’ He didn’t add that Mia looked great in that low-cut dress now her figure was back, or that she told anyone who’d listen she’s looking forward to returning to work. Made a point of including him in her smile, almost winking at him. Of course, there was that unaccountable little incident when Geoff danced with the new girl from sales, but only a few people saw it. Jacinta whisked Mia off, made sure she had another coffee and extra cake and everything was fine again with no one the wiser. And Geoff? He’s solid, a good man in a scrum.

‘Yes,’ said the Chairman, ‘Geoff is on track again and deserves a break.’ And again he didn’t say what he was thinking, that Jacinta is married, probably a mother herself soon; he saw her cooing over photographs of the twins on Mia’s mobile. ‘I’m giving it to Hardcastle,’ he told the waiting board. ‘Hardcastle’s the man for the job.’

Sparks

At first only sparks, fragments of light that died and died again. Finally, despite her shuddering hands, a flicker, a glint of flame that swung wildly, spluttered then settled into something more.

‘Minuscule flame,’ she intoned , ‘stay alive, stay alive…’

A sound from beyond the night: familiar footsteps, the flood of stamping feet dislodging snow from the sole, and the door opened. Her body defended the flame but once the door shut she turned. He held a tight pyramid of dried logs in his arms. ‘It needs time to grow,’ she said, ‘before we can load one of those onto it.’ She pulled kindling toward her, fertilised the flame with it. Under her breath she repeated her prayer, ‘Stay alive, stay alive …’ this time with vigour, the energy of her words driving the flame into the farther corners of the hearth, into the frosted marrow of her bones.

They ate well that night; a small portion of the meat, some of the root vegetables. They slept warm before the hearth  while winds clawed at their door. He lay swaddled in their sleep, muttering through the dreams, ‘Stay alive, stay alive, stay alive …’

Developing Your Eye Day Five

Today’s Task: Connect

To connect we must fasten, physically unite, join. We must tie and bind, relate and associate, we must as E. M. Forster has said, ‘Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.’

#developingyoureye: 'Connect'
#developingyoureye: ‘Connect’

Yet the connection made possible by these lines and wires is fragmentary, temporal, tenuous.

The earth is a beast tethered by humankind’s inability to endure solitude; there is nothing wrong with connection, what needs to be questioned is the motivation for, and the quality and cost of, the connection. We no longer reach out a hand to another, we press a button. We text but never talk; fearful of our impurities we share only what we can photoshop.

The monolith rising above my house gives me the world on a screen even as it ties me to my throttled patch of the planet … and yet, and yet … how else to re-calibrate the fibres of our subjectivity than by assenting to this thready connection with an Other?

I cannot answer that question.

I don’t have to answer that question.

I can, through laptop, cable and satellite, connect to the world, ask that question and hope for a reply.

On Fulfilling a Challenge

Have you ever set yourself a challenge? Something long-term and personally meaningful, something that, when completed, surprised, delighted and satisfied you?

Back on the 4th July 2015, around the time I decided to retire, I set myself such a challenge. Aaron_BurdenI had another five months of classes to prepare and teach, but I was eager to start my ‘new’ life as a full-time writer. I always found it difficult to maintain a regular writing routine while teaching, so I knew ‘writing ten minutes a day’ wasn’t, at that time, going to work. I had to find something else that would prepare me for the rest of my life.

I decided to immerse myself in one aspect of my art: short stories. I set myself the challenge of reading one short story a day, every day, for twelve months.

Reader, I did it. Ten days ago, on the 4th July 2016, I read Kate Chopin’s ‘Regret’, the 366th (yes, I added an extra) story, thus ending my challenge. I have to say it was the best thing I have ever done. Not only did reading a wide selection of short stories inform my writing, I think it made me a better person.

I tended to stick to stories and collections written by women; it was my challenge and so I could follow my inclinations and biases. I discovered, during the challenge, writers I didn’t know about and rediscovered writers I had enjoyed years ago. In the case of the latter, reading Kerryn Goldsworthy’s wonderful Australian Women’s Stories: An Oxford Anthology K_G_Bookfelt like walking in to a roomful of women, many of who were old friends and many others I wanted to learn more about. Barbara Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’, from that collection, is an Australian short story classic. I have read it several times and, yes, this is a cliché, but it never fails to move me. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so straight away.

Another collection I read was Contemporary Canadian Short Stories, edited by Michael Ondaatje. My reaction to this was mixed; I enjoyed most of the stories but was perplexed by the inclusion of several others. I learned, however, a lot about Canada’s history and its people. I have always wanted to visit Canada and this book fed that ambition. I’ve also decided to read a more recent collection of Canadian short stories; if you have a favourite, please let me know.

Another discovery was The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.   Davis_lydiaI’d known about flash fiction before finding this collection but Davis’ book has strengthened my interest in short, short stories. I am astounded by how she says so much in such a small form.

All in all, I read from about 21 collections (many of which I bought, putting, in the process, severe stress on my budget). I only read four of them from cover to cover, preferring to cherry pick from the others and expose myself to as wide a variety of writers and genres as possible. The bonus is, I still have many of these collections to complete, so I’ll be working through my short story collection for many years to come.

I also strayed into creative (or literary) nonfiction, those mostly erudite gems whose facets include truth, dialogue, characterisation, setting and plot. This is one of my favourite genres and something I want to work on so Helen Garner’s recent book, Everywhere I Look felt like a literary benediction. I read each story slowly and I didn’t want it to finish.

I also discovered podcasts. This was in the latter months of 2015, when I was still teaching and struggling to stick to my resolve of consuming a story a day. Every time I caught the bus to work I set up my mobile, put in my ear plugs and clicked on to New Yorker: Fiction or New Yorker: The Author’s Voice. Oh, the joys of being read to again.

Regrettably I only dipped into one short story magazine, mostly because purchasing them would have stretched the budget too far. As a writer, however, reading as many magazines as possible is a good idea, especially when I’m considering submitting a story.

Another happy discovery was Wild  Ways: New Stories about Women on the Road.  WildWays It was given to me by a friend who was clearing books from her personal library. This friend is much travelled and I suspect she gave it to me because I’m just the opposite; I’ve been overseas once. I loved this collection. It was full of funny, feisty, adventurous women and while I was reading it I wanted to get on the first plane to anywhere.

I learned so much from this challenge, although only a little in terms of how to write a short story. Back in 2004 I studied short story writing in depth, when I returned to university as an undergraduate. This is not to say I know everything about writing a short story, far from it. Three months into my challenge, I found I was immersed in the world of short stories and the short story writer and I had started looking beyond the different elements that make up a short story. I think I developed a more nuanced awareness of the intricacies and complexities of the short form. I absorbed, I believe, a deeper understanding of how the genre works and why it is so important. If I chose, I could probably bash out an academic essay about each element of story writing, but a good short story is more than a clever arrangement of those elements. Having read 366 short stories in a year, I think a good short story is like a tree in the forest, the one you come across that makes you stop. The one that holds your gaze because, even if its branches are askew, its leaves withered, and its roots knotty, the pattern of light and shade that tree affords, the interaction of that tree with the earth and the sky, is so inspiring, so fascinating it doesn’t need to be perfect. All that such stories need is the brush of your breath on the page, like the wind that brushes through the leaves of a tree, to complete it.

I read so many short good stories it is impossible to list and discuss them all. More importantly, the ones I like may be the very stories you’d reject. Yes, there are classics, universally loved tales that most people agree have all the elements perfectly arranged, but over the last year I stepped into several beautiful forests, I was arrested by many single trees whose branches embraced me, who revealed in their pattern of leaf and twig, a different sky, a further horizon.

I miss the routine of sitting down each day and reading a story, although the truth is I didn’t manage to do it every single day. In late 2015, essay and exam marking meant I never quite found the right moment. Christmas and New Year always chews up my days; who would want it any other way? I always caught up though, and I learned to love missed days because it meant I could sit and catch up on two or three stories at a time.

Every so often, in the last ten days, I have stopped what I’m doing and wondered what is missing. Then I realise I haven’t read a short story and I remember; my challenge is over. Except it isn’t. I’ve set myself a new challenge, only this time I’m not going to work on it every day; I want this challenge to be more leisured and measured. I am going to read Shakespeare: all the plays (some of them for a third or fourth time), in the order he wrote them; all the poems and all the sonnets. NortonI’ve started with ‘The First Part of the Contention’, which, it is assumed, is his first play. I’m up to Act III Scene i and I can’t wait to read more.

I’m not sure how long it will take me to complete this challenge, and I’m not sure I care. What I can say is, in the process, I’ll learn a lot about drama, about writing and about the human condition. That’s why I read; it’s one of the best ways to understand our fellow humans.

WHAT challenges have you set yourself that you’re still involved in? What challenges have you completed? What did you learn about yourself and others while doing the challenge? What kind of challenges would you like to set for yourself and why?

References

Davis, Lydia. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Daly, Margo, and Jill Dawson. Wild Ways: New Stories About Women on the Road. London: Sceptre, 1998.
Garner, Helen. Everywhere I Look. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016.
Goldsworthy, Kerryn. Australian Women’s Stories: An Oxford Anthology. South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories. Faber, 1990.
http://www.newyorker.com/series/fiction-podcast
http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/the-authors-voice/introducing-the-authors-voice-new-fiction-from-the-new-yorker

(Edited 17/7/16)

Muses, Metaphors and Sunlight.

‘It started with a flash but will end with …’ What sort of prompt is that? Flash_01

This is so boring, like swimming towards a lifeboat while fighting for your last breath.

Hardly boring; more like survival. It might be futile but she’ll never give up. She lives on hope and she has a manuscript.

A half baked, self indulgent, weirdly structured memoir she spent five years writing and researching.

But it IS something.

What kind of something?

A finished something.

And now she’s back where she, where we, started.

Except this time she’s investigating the flash.

The what?

The prompt, above.

That was just a prompt. It’s of no consequence.

It might be serendipity or a message from the unconscious. She should let it agitate, let it develop. Something could come of it.

What?

Oh, for goodness sake. A flash. Or what the flash means.

Calm down. Let’s go back to the prompt: ‘It started with a flash …’ I’ll look up the word … Ooo, this IS interesting. It says here, ‘Origin: Middle English,  a marshy place …’

… Let me look at that. I suppose the dictionary can’t be wrong, but is it relevant?

You’re the one going on about messages from the unconscious. Marshes mean water, flow, creativity, you know, all that stuff. Pisces.

Pisces? A marsh is more Scorpio than Pisces …

… ‘a burst of light,’ but not necessarily from an explosion … Marshes can explode … so can flashlights, and there’s a newsflash, or … here … a ‘flash in time,’ or ‘a flash in the pan.’ It’s an adjective too. ‘Pertaining to thieves and prostitutes. Sporting and betting men. Gaudy and showy. Counterfeit. Sham. Knowing. Cheeky.’ Hee, hee, ‘a flash house is a brothel.’ And it’s a verb as well.

A verb?

‘The wave flashing … the roaring surf flashing up over … he flashed me, officer.’

Be serious. Our job is to provide inspiration and …

… Don’t you think we’ve done that? 

I know, I know, but think of the triumph when she’s finally published.

That’s not what she wants, and you know it.

You’re right. She wants to ‘say something’, she wants to save us, them – her kind. She wants to change things.

As if that will happen.

It might.

Has it ever? ‘This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a …’

You automatically reject anything that’s good. It stresses her.

You’re too soft on her. She enjoys it. Granted, she doesn’t enjoy how slow the process is but she’s finally got the idea of shifting between flow and … what is the opposite of flow?

Tedium?

That will do. Tedium: attending to every word, monitoring every full stop, every apostrophe. 

Flash_02  Hmm. Like watching the sunlight on gentle waves compared to sunlight striking the corner of your eye; contemplating beauty while having to peer through and around the shaft?

Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, but alright, it’s all about the light. So why the impatience? Instead of enjoying the process she’s forcing it.

Oh, I agree. Nothing happens if you push too soon, too hard or too late. She’s pushing instead of doing that shallow, puff puff breathing that releases the child. Deep breathing is the light on the waves; the newborn’s scream is sun hitting your eye.

Isn’t she a bit old for the childbirth metaphor and isn’t it time we had a cup of tea?

How about a hot chocolate?

It looks like it’s going to be a long day. Gin and Tonic?

Just the thing.

Flash_03