For decades now, I’ve been sitting on an idea for a novel and the other day I read a review of a new book that is exactly what I should have written. In fact, for a mad moment I thought I’d actually done it and was reading a review all about me. It’s exactly my idea, down to the letter. And worse (sorry to admit it) it looks fantastic. I think I would’ve preferred it to be a terrible read, so that I could be pushed into completing my own version of the thing.
I started pondering a novel based on Thomas Hardy when I was at college. I gathered lots of secondhand books on his life – biographies, poetry collections, even rare editions written by his wife, Emma, and others who met him. I worked in various full-time jobs after college and tried to write on days off, but it was difficult. Nonetheless, I produced a first draft (it’s not good) and it’s still sitting on my shelf, frequently shaking its head in disappointment that I never got round to fixing it.
I suppose I always thought there’d be time in the future. I’d glance at my ‘Hardy shelf’ of books and know that some day I would produce my masterpiece. And now it’s too late. Someone else, someone with more time (and more talent) has done it.
‘The Trouble is, you think you’ve time.’
But is it really too late? I’ll read the book, no doubt, knowing all the references to Hardy’s life and works, recognising poetic parallels, trying hard to swallow envy when it appears. But surely there’s room for us all? And I still want to tell the story of Emma and Florence Hardy – the two women who happened to marry a famous writer but who were overshadowed in their time. They deserve a voice.
Maybe soon I’ll dust off the manuscript and grapple with an edit. This impressive review of another book might be just the push I needed. If you’ve got your own version of ‘some day’, maybe it’s closer than you think. Time waits for no-one.
A while ago I sent off a piece of fiction to Books Ireland for consideration in their flash fiction anthology. It’s a teeny, tiny story called ‘Touching Freckles’ and I’m very fond of it. So it was a marvellous surprise to get the email saying it would be published on their website for the flash fiction series this year. I don’t know where it came from (or why I chose something a little sad) but I like the characters so much that I might let them live longer in another format some day. Meantime here it is – telling a love story in 250 words.
“Okay, sheepskin? Or velvet? Oh, pressing your fingers down hard onto a hedgehog!” There’s a snigger.
“Where would I even get a hedgehog who’d let me do that? Seriously, you’re shit at this!”
She’s frowning now, I can always tell. I can feel those knitted brows as if I’m holding onto her pretty face, spreading my fingers along her forehead, like old times. Know what I miss most of all? Her freckles. My clumsy fingers stroke and press but - nothing. She sighs, leans into me. “Sam,” she says.
Disease is fast, until it’s slow. Falling over is funny, until it’s not. Sally is no longer frowning, I know this, like I know my heart still beats. Her freckles. A sky full of stars, I said once, and we fell about laughing. “Stars!” Sally shrieked.
We saw our long future up ahead, the path clear and lined with flowers. Not for us, the thorns that would prick, the darkness that would swallow.
What did we know?
“Blind as a bat?”, I asked. The doctor frowned (they never laugh, do they?) We held hands the whole way home. What else is there? Darkness descended, slow and heavy and soundless. I live in the dark. But the light is fuzzy around the edges.
Those freckles. Stars.
I’m slowly emerging from the dreaded lurgy. After two and a half years of carefully avoiding it, Covid finally sought me out. Seeing the two lines on the lateral flow test made my heart sink, but it was always on the horizon wasn’t it?
It hit hard, as happens for some (did someone say underlying health condition?) and I’m trying to be patient with the slow process of recovery. Most of all, the brain fog is hanging around. The perfect description, this, for feelings of disconnect and confusion: what’s the word for that thing again? Do I feel like watching TV or should I clean the bathroom? These questions can roll around in my head for HOURS as I sit staring out the window. It took weeks to open my laptop and then ages to form sentences. I haven’t sent a monthly newsletter since it feels out of reach. It’s rotten and choking, this fog, and it seems to carry in its wake an emotional element.
One of the biggest and foggiest issues in my head right now is encroaching despair. Democracy is wobbling. Wars are rife. Women and minorities are under attack. And all the while this virus is having a great old time. Cases are on the rise yet again and I think we could be forgiven for feelings of despair - when will it go away? Cancelled holidays, missing loved ones, and an alarming case of ‘them and us’ as the crisis once again shows the cracks. Societal shifts tend to bring division and this past few years is no exception. The gap is widening between the tribes: masks and vaccines versus lack thereof. In the foggy skies I’m struggling to even picture a bridge that could fill the gap never mind work out how to build one. We were once on the same page trying to keep each other safe, look out for the NHS, protect the vulnerable. But now, given the lack of moral leadership (don’t get me started) we’ve gone our separate and individual ways to the detriment of all.
It makes me sad. And mad. We’re better together, this is what our social species needs to stay alive. But ‘me first’ narratives are the order of the day. Why do we do this? Are we incapable of living together in peace and finding common ground? It sure looks that way.
Hope is to be found in wonderful journalism (click here for the best piece of political writing I’ve ever read) and wise old literature. Jane Austen never fails to lift the spirits, and Shakespeare speaks through the centuries to explain the human condition like none other. Which is to say: I’m taking refuge in books. When all else fails (and it’s all going wrong out there) literature brings me home to a safe place.
There’s comfort in stepping away to see that it was ever thus. The pendulum swings back, storms end, and slowly, slowly, skies become clear.
Things happen slowly sometimes. I mean really, really slowly. Usually when you’re excited or anxious about something. Time is relative, I suppose, but recently I’ve been trying extra hard to be patient. It’s a virtue after all.
I worked for a few years at a counsellor with Cruse Bereavement Care and during a debrief session with my supervisor one day was surprised to hear him congratulate me on my ability to be patient. Apparently it was one of the main skills I’d shown with a number of clients who were facing difficult loss. I was surprised, mainly because I’d thought the opposite; I wondered if I was showing frustration with a lack of progress. But my supervisor saw something in me that I didn’t recognise, and I’ve always remembered it. Always remembered, too, that grief itself cannot be rushed. Nor can recovery of any kind: slow and steady is the key.
On a smaller but no less urgent scale, the editing process for my memoir has taken longer than I thought. Apart from the occasional (awkwardly nonchalant) nudges in his direction, I’m learning to accept that my editor is busy and that these things take time. And when the book shows up in an email with over two hundred edit marks, it feels like I’m back to square one when I dive in. Who said writing is re-writing? But in general the whole process has been both challenging and fun. And it still hasn’t really sunk in that I have an actual agent and an actual editor who are championing my book. It has taken upwards of twenty years to get to this point so it’s an accomplishment in itself and I’m still basking in it. The journey got me here. And that’s it isn’t it? As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, it’s not the destination it’s the journey. Whatever happens next I’m loving the creative process; I’m learning a lot and small achievements along the way are worth celebrating.
There isn’t one big goal with fireworks at the end, it’s all grist to the creative mill. I’m riding along with the wind in my hair, up and down, sun and rain. Hop on!
I caught sight of an angry-looking face the other day and was startled, nay horrified, to realise that it was me. I was sitting in a cafe enjoying a coffee and had glanced at my reflection in the window.
It seems I don’t have the kind of face that looks terribly happy when at rest – for some reason my features arrange themselves into this angry line (please don’t ask to look at the photo on my driver’s licence). This is a famous and fairly common phenomenon known as ‘Resting Bitch Face’ (but I note that it affects men and women equally, so there’s an unsurprising touch of misogyny in the phrase). “Give us a smile love!”, and all that. Sigh.
Where was I? Oh yes. I started to wonder if I was secretly very annoyed about something (see above), or generally not very nice. Maybe my face was just doing its best to communicate this fact to others? But it seems that it’s just the way things go – some people have features that ‘settle’ a certain way. I can blame my genes.
In the 1970s the psychologist Paul Ekman carried out experiments to identify the six emotions through facial expressions, even working out which muscles were used each time. Fascinatingly, he and his colleague started to notice that their mood was affected: on days when they had to form frowns they felt down, even after the return home and a good sleep. They discovered that signals arrive in the brain to identify a feeling when facial expressions take place. So emotions seem to work from the outside in, as well as the inside out. You can turn your frown upside down after all. And soon enough your brain will start to believe that all is well.
Next time I take a coffee break I’ll make an effort to form a smile, even a small one. If nothing else, at least I won’t scare the people walking past the window this time.