Monthly Archives: March 2014

I Inhabit a Body

***Warning: possibly triggering for those sensitive to body image, eating disorder or weight issues***

The last few days have been something of an emotional ‘perfect storm’ for me.

It all started with this brilliant, beautiful and perfectly judged blog post by Foz Meadows, followed by this poem and this .gif (both seen on Tumblr), and finally this podcast from the Australian actor Magda Szubanski, which was shared by the wonderful Kate Wally over on Twitter. After I listened to the last link – the podcast – I had a good cry, and it wasn’t simply because of the power and sorrow of Magda’s story, though powerful and sorrowful it undoubtedly is. I wept because her experience as a woman, a woman with the temerity to exist in an imperfect body, with the cheek to appear in public in leisure clothing while enjoying herself at the beach, shattered something deep inside me.

For, like Szubanski, I am a fat person.

I am a fat woman, which is immeasurably worse than simply being a fat ‘person.’

I am a fat woman who has hated herself all her life, and I am sick of it.

Paleolithic (c. 28,000 - 25,000 BCE) figurine of a woman, possibly a fertility idol, known as the Venus of Willendorf or the Woman of Willendorf. Image: gattonero.de

Paleolithic (c. 28,000 – 25,000 BCE) figurine of a woman, possibly a fertility idol, known as the Venus of Willendorf or the Woman of Willendorf.
Image: gattonero.de

I inhabit a body which is large, and misshapen, and unpleasing. I inhabit a body which some would say has no right to exist.  I inhabit a body which I know would be sneered at, judged, condemned and – metaphorically or literally – spat upon by certain others in the society in which I live, and I have been aware of this for a very long time. I have learned to live with it, and I hate that I have had to.

Once, years ago, I lost a significant amount of weight by, essentially, subsisting on about 800 calories a day for the better part of twelve months; my body shrank, but my mind stayed the same. I carried my larger self around like a shell, my new body shrinking within it like a grub, or a soft underbelly. It felt vulnerable. The smaller I got, the more visible I became. As I grew thinner, I thought my life would start to make sense. I thought the world would open up to me. I thought my heart would heal and my mind would clear, and every day would be like a Disney cartoon.

But it wasn’t.

I was still me – just a smaller version.

The self-judgement, the self-hate, the ‘checking’ that had been part of my life as a larger person – all that stayed with me. It got worse, even. The thin me was ‘normal’ looking, and she had a new, unfamiliar set of rules to follow. I had to wear the ‘right’ clothes, do the ‘right’ job, be seen in the ‘right’ places. And I was never good enough.

And, over the years, the weight has come back – and I am still not good enough.

I am an intelligent and well-educated person. I know how bodies work, how nutrition works, how exercise works. I know my Vitamin A from my Vitamin K; I know my saturated from my unsaturated fats. I’ve been wailing on about the dangers of excess sugar consumption for ages, long before it ever became part of the global conversation on obesity. I know the dangers of carrying excess weight, particularly around the middle – where I carry it.

But I am a vegetarian. I eat plenty of wholegrains, pulses, legumes and salads. I get my protein from beans, eggs, and cheese carefully selected to be as low in calories as possible. I eat plain natural yogurt with a teaspoon of honey if I need a treat. Every morning I make porridge with skimmed milk and water. I eat three small meals a day.

And, very occasionally, when I’m out with family or friends, I will have a dessert – and I judge myself with every mouthful.

Image: mongoliankitchen.com

Image: mongoliankitchen.com

The last time I attended the doctor, it was for an issue entirely unrelated to my weight. The medical practitioner spoke to me briefly about the issue concerned, and then hopped straight onto the topic of my size. She insisted on weighing me, even though I told her I didn’t require her to. She gave me a condescending lecture about ‘letting ourselves get too big,’ and when I tried to explain that I eat mindfully and that exercise is not unknown to me, and that I was perfectly healthy, her response was:

I don’t care if you tell me you’re eating two lettuce leaves a day. Eat one lettuce leaf a day for three months, and then come back to me.

I am so tired of this.

I am so tired of trying to explain to doctors that perhaps my weight is a symptom of something else, and not a result of my lifestyle – which, no doubt, they imagine involves buckets of fried chicken, gallons of ice-cream and beer by the vatload. I am tired of not being believed. I am tired of being sent for blood tests to check for the diabetes they will not believe I don’t have, simply because I’m large. My blood sugar levels, for the curious, are on the low side of normal, by the way.

Often, in my hearing, people will comment on the weight of others, because it is simply something that we do, as a society, without even thinking about it. ‘My, hasn’t she put on stones since we saw her last?’ or ‘Look at Joe – obviously marriage suits him. He’s wearing his contentment around his waist!’ I hate this. Where possible, I refuse to take part in conversations like this, and I ask the commenter to stop. Not only is it cruel, and unnecessary, but I always feel that if people are saying these things about others, what are they saying about me? And, in my dark and private moments, it’s these words of judgement that I hear echoing around my own head, directed inwards.

Except, during my darkest times, they’re spoken in my own voice.

Image: quiet-elephant.deviantart.com

Image: quiet-elephant.deviantart.com

I have been hearing, and repeating, these words to myself since I was a child. I have ruined any joy I could have had in my body, my looks, my person, because I have absorbed the judgement of others, which has – over time – become self-judgement. I have a body that works – it runs when I tell it to, it walks for miles, it sings and laughs and shouts with joy; it jumps over puddles and climbs up hills and it danced up the aisle on my wedding day.

And yet I hate it because it is not small enough.

And I hate the voice in my head that reminds me, whenever I see my reflection, how far short I fall of perfection.

And I hate the world we’ve created, where little girls like I was are made to feel like objects – of scorn, of hatred, of scapegoating judgement.

And I hate that this voice – this eyebrow-raised, hand-on-hip, pursed-lip, can’t-you-just-control-yourself? voice, is with me every second of every day. I hate that no matter how much joy I try to take in all the things my body can do, and in all the boundless capability of my mind, this voice will never fade.

Fat people are not all slobs – but even if they were, so what?

Fat people are not all impulsive, uncontrolled, binge-eating, lazy good-for-nothings – but even if they were, so what?

Fat people – people like me – are not here to be anybody’s whipping boy, and we are not here to be made fun of or shamed or used as a spectacle, or as an example of what can happen when you ‘let yourself go,’ or as a thing to be laughed at. Because – and this is important – fat people are people, and they are as deserving of respect and equality and consideration as anyone else.

I inhabit a body. It might not be one that meets with societal approval, but it’s mine, and it’s one that I want people to judge – because judge they must – by the smile on my face, and the strength of my hug, and the width of my heart.

And the dark voice inside me will keep on murmuring, and I will keep on trying to silence it.

Saturday Book Review – ‘The Lastling’

I freely admit that the main reason I picked up this book was because it had a snowy landscape on the cover. Anyone who’s been around here for longer than five minutes knows that, while I’m not terribly fond of snow in reality, I love reading about it. I’m fascinated by the Polar regions and those distant icy fastnesses of the world where anything – and anyone – can happen.

Image: readingmatters.co.uk

Image: readingmatters.co.uk

The second reason I picked it up is this: it’s published by Oxford University Press. Nine times out of ten, the children’s books published by OUP are worth checking out. This one was definitely worth the effort.

Philip Gross’ 2003 novel was a gripping affair from start to its Apocalypse Now-tinged ending, easily holding my attention and keeping me guessing – and that’s no easy feat. It tells the stories of Paris, a privileged fourteen-year-old American girl on a trip to the Himalayas with her distinctly strange uncle, and Tahr, a twelve-year-old boy who has been taken on by an elderly Buddhist monk, Shengo, as his apprentice. This pair of vastly different children end up realising exactly how similar they are, and how far they’ll go to protect something dear to them both – and how badly the odds are stacked against them, from all corners. It’s a book which, while having distinctly ‘otherworldly’ tones, is also firmly grounded in the real – Paris comes from a home which hasn’t been broken so much as smashed, and Tahr’s early life is a blur of painful memories involving burning, and pain, and being separated from his mother. Paris’ uncle, Franklin, is a man with more money than conscience, and his motives for coming to the Himalayas are far from noble. As well as that, the region is being torn apart by a brutal civil war, into which the children find themselves being thrust as they struggle to escape from the enemies who wish to destroy them, and that which they wish to protect.

Even though this book is, by most accounts, an ‘oldie’, it was certainly new to me. I was also unfamiliar with the author. I don’t want to give away too much about this precious thing the children want to save, though, for fear of spoiling a surprise for other readers – though, one look at the book’s cover, as I’ve shown it above, gives a multitude of clues.

Here’s an alternative cover, which is almost as intriguing.

Image: fantasticfiction.co.uk

Image: fantasticfiction.co.uk

The book is well paced, particularly as it draws to its conclusion; there are brutal scenes near the end, ones which bring home the reality of war and the truth of what it’s like to be at the mercy of people with no scruples, but they don’ t feel forced, or overdone. I loved the closing scenes of the book, and it’s one of those stories where I feel, had I been the author, I wouldn’t have changed a word. I enjoyed Philip Gross’ writing style, particularly in the scenes he writes about Paris on her own – these seem sparky and true to life, and her dialogue is great. He deals well with Tahr and his relationship with Shengo, and shows the delicacy of his growing friendship with Paris which transcends the profound differences in their backgrounds and experiences. An early scene, where Tahr loses someone he loves and blames himself for it, is moving and memorable, and perfectly pitched. Paris’ relationship with Franklin reminded me a little of Sym’s with her uncle Victor in ‘The White Darkness’, another OUP children’s book which I also really enjoyed; Franklin, despite his brains and money and skill, seems a little one-note and flat, mainly because there’s not a lot to him besides his psychopathy. Perhaps, indeed, this is the point.

‘The Lastling’ is a book about family, and love, and – in particular – children’s relationships with their mothers, and how important these relationships are. The contrasts between the various mothers in the text, and their connections to their children, are stark, and we see the differing levels of commitment, sacrifice and love offered by each mother to her child. There can scarcely be a more emotive thing for a children’s book to take as its central motif, and the way it’s used in this book is masterful. It draws a character which might seem otherwise completely impossible to relate to so close to the reader as to be almost uncomfortable, and in the process makes us realise a few dark truths about humanity, and our role in the destruction of the world around us. It’s not a new theme, by any means – mankind as the great destroyer – but I’ve never seen it handled quite like this book handles it.

In short, this is one of those rare books which will appeal equally to boys and girls, and should also be extremely readable for adults – it has war and guts in spades, but at its heart it’s a book about connection and emotion. It’s a book about humanity, and what makes humanity special and separate from the rest of the animal kingdom (hint: not a lot), and which should make anyone who reads it think for a while about the arrogance of our species and what, exactly, we’re basing that arrogance upon.

In short – recommended. Read it, but be prepared to be angry.

Tahr helping Paris up a cliff-face, as described near the end of the book.  Image: learnerscavalcade.blogspot.ie, via Google images

Tahr helping Paris up a cliff-face, as described near the end of the book.
Image: learnerscavalcade.blogspot.ie, via Google images

Earth Alpha – and a Bookish Miracle

Huzzah! Let joy be unconfined! My Bookish Mystery has been solved.

Yesterday evening – as a direct result of my blog appeal for help in tracing a book I knew I’d read as a little girl, but whose author and title I’d long forgotten – I got a message which said: ‘Is this it?’

It was, dear readers. It was.

I think this was even the cover of the edition I read as a kid. Image: found0bjects.blogspot.com

I think this was even the cover of the edition I read as a kid.
Image: found0bjects.blogspot.com

The book is called Marianne Dreams, and the author – who sadly died in 2001 – was Catherine Storr. Embarrassingly, the book now has its own Wikipedia page and everything; if I’d just run another Google search, I probably could have found it myself. I hadn’t actually looked for it for a few years, since long before the age of Wikipedia and the excellent Google that we have now. But no matter.

The book that has haunted me for nearly thirty years has been tracked down.

I found a reissued edition from 2006 which is still in print, and I’ve already ordered it from my favourite bookshop, which also happens to be the place in which I used to work as a bookseller. They’re used to me and my oddnesses there. I cannot wait to have this story in my hands again, and I cannot wait to read it and see whether the terrifying power it had over my brain as a kid is still there.

I am so excited.

I remember this illustration, in particular – it was always the top right-hand window of the house in the drawing that made me quiver inside, and it was this image that convinced me the right book had been found.

Image: gaskella.wordpress.com

Image: gaskella.wordpress.com

That’s the window to the room where Mark – a little boy, not a little girl, as I’d remembered – is being held captive by the power of the standing stones all around. I wasn’t mixing it up with Penelope Lively, after all; there was a stone circle in this book, too. Perhaps there’s hope for my aged memory banks yet.

Anyway. Thank you to everyone who retweeted my appeal and offered suggestions, and I’ll let y’all know in a few weeks whether the book is as good as, or better than, I remembered.

Image: ololbhills.catholic.edu

Image: ololbhills.catholic.edu

It also, in all likelihood, hasn’t escaped your notice that today is Friday. That means – yesirree – it’s Flash! Friday again. This week, the required element to include was ‘Space Travel’, and the prompt image was this fine photograph here:

Bicycle tunnel, double exposure. CC photo by r. nial bradshaw. Image: flashfriday.wordpress.com

Bicycle tunnel, double exposure. CC photo by r. nial bradshaw.
Image: flashfriday.wordpress.com

So, this is what I made of it:

Earth Alpha

Dan didn’t bother hailing; his words just boomed right through my skull, out of nowhere. I adjusted the volume on my CochliCall as he spoke.

‘Nico!’ he said. ‘Where are you?’

‘Oh, hey, Dan. Thanks for yelling.’

‘Shut up, and get over here. It’s happening!’

‘But – this early?’

Dan just tssked, and disconnected.

I had to think fast. Dad – working. Mom, offworld. Dan and me had sworn, as kids, that we’d watch the landing together, and I was going to keep my promise.

But that didn’t solve my immediate problem – transport.

Then, I remembered. Great-great-gramp’s bike!

I skidded to the garage. Dad kept it in good nick, for nostalgia’s sake, but I’d never learned how to operate it. I did my best.

As I rode, I watched the sky. Earth Omega was beautiful, and all, but I couldn’t wait to see Earth Alpha. Our origin planet, long abandoned.

I smiled, pedalling faster. Maybe now, we could finally start going home.

***

So, that’s where I’m at this Friday morning – dreaming of worlds unknown, some of them made from words. I hope a wonderful day awaits you all.

Bookish Mysteries

Now, by ‘Bookish Mysteries,’ I’m not talking the type that involve these fellas, here:

Image: venturegalleries.com

Image: venturegalleries.com

or even this lassie, here (much as I love her):

Image: fanpop.com

Image: fanpop.com

No. I’m talking about books whose plots I can only barely remember, whose titles I’ve forgotten, and which I would love very much to track down – if only I could remember enough about them to have any chance of searching for them successfully.

It’s no secret that I’ve read a lot of books in my years on this planet. I started young, so some of them have (sadly) retreated into the mists of faulty memory; I’ve also always had a vivid imagination, so sometimes I wonder whether the plots I remember are actually of books I read, or something I dreamed up myself. I have form for this kind of thing: for years, I had a recurring memory of an animated film I’d seen which involved a floating city, a girl, and a robot with long arms and one eye which was bigger than the other.

Nobody but me seemed to remember it.

I was told by everyone – my film-crazy brother included – that I was just remembering a dream and confusing it with reality, or plain making stuff up, but I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t. I knew. I struggled to remember, for years, what this film was called, what it had been about, what the little girl’s name was, all that. It was very frustrating. I was essentially being called delusional by everyone I knew, and I was being told to forget about it. And the sad thing was, I almost did.

And then, I went to college. And I met something called ‘the Internet.’

Image: technabob.com

Image: technabob.com

That fine fellow is a model of the giant robot in the 1986 animated movie ‘Castle in the Sky,’ directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Note, if you please, the long arms and the eyes – one of which is bigger than the other.

I can’t even explain the sense of euphoria that washed over me when, finally, I had proof that this movie wasn’t something I’d dreamed up and that my memories of it were real. I’d watched it, I’d loved it, and now I knew what it was called I could track it down. And I did.

It was every bit as magical in my twenties as it had been as a child. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it.

Anyway, the point is: things that are half-remembered from childhood have a strange sort of power. It’s probably a mix of the idealisation of youth and the excitement of coming across a new story for the first time, but whatever it is, it’s potent. When you can just barely remember something – it’s on the tip of your mind, just about hanging on by its fingertips – it’s irritating, and maddening, and intriguing, and strangely exciting.

I know I read a book, many many many years ago, which I remember loving. (We’re talking the nineteen-eighties here, people – the era of big hair and legwarmers and large-framed spectacles and glitter. Halcyon days.) It was, of course, a children’s book, and it featured a little girl living in a house near a circle of standing stones which had an eerie power over the landscape. In the book, there was a drawing of another house, and in one of the windows of the drawing another little girl was living, trapped inside it and desperate to get out.

Now, I may be confusing part of this plot with Penelope Lively’s marvellous ‘The Whispering Knights,’ which features a circle of standing stones (based on the real landmark known as the Rollright Stones, in the United Kingdom):

Image: amazon.com

Image: amazon.com

I know I read this book during the long ago 1980s, too, and I loved it. I haven’t read it in recent years, but as far as I know the plot involves three children who accidentally raise the spirit of Morgan la Fay, witch extraordinaire, who goes on to terrorise their village.

But the detail about the drawing – and the little girl trapped inside it, forever held captive behind an upstairs window – is something which has held an iron grip over my mind for almost thirty years. Does anyone remember a book which features anything even remotely like this? The idea of it, the sheer deep-down bone horror of it, has haunted me all my life, and perhaps it holds this power because I simply can’t remember the name of the book; perhaps if I could, that power, and that intrigue, would dissipate.

But perhaps it has power because it’s a really good idea.

I’ve always suspected the idea was too good, and too strong, to be one of mine. I can’t give myself credit for coming up with it, because I genuinely don’t think I did. However, I’ve never been able to find it with a Google search or using Bookfinder or anything like that. Admittedly, I haven’t tried it in a while, but for some reason it’s on my mind again this morning and I thought I’d throw it out into the wilds of Blogville, and see if anyone could help.

So – can anyone help? Please, put me out of my mystery.*

*Pun intended.

Smug Sherlock. Just because. Image: davinahamilton.com

Smug Sherlock. Just because.
Image: davinahamilton.com

Wednesday Write-In #84

This week’s words were: murky  ::  favourite mug  ::  hasty  ::  myth  ::  murder

Image: pinterest.com

Image: pinterest.com

Crisis Management

I knew it as soon as she came through the door. Murky look in her eyes, mouth drawn tight, frown lines like steppes across her forehead. When she threw her backpack into the corner without giving it a second glance, I knew for sure.

Favourite mug. Kettle on.

‘I could murder a cup of tea, love. You?’

‘Thanks, Mum.’ She slid into her chair, folding her legs under herself like she used to do when she was tiny. I had to look away, just for a second, as the kettle started rumbling beside me. A blink or two, and I was fine again.

‘Everything all right?’ The kettle clattered and clicked, belching steam. She spoke, but I couldn’t hear her over its racket. I poured the tea, carrying the mugs to the table. She wrapped her fingers around hers without even looking – her fingernails are gone to hell again, I couldn’t help thinkingbefore telling myself to shut up.

‘So. Is it something at school?’ I blew across the surface of my tea, pretending to watch it ripple. I saw her lick her lips, and the pained flash that crossed her face.

‘I told you,’ she said. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Good, good. So, how’s Maths? I know you were having some difficulty last -‘

‘Mum, is it true? About boys?’

I coughed. ‘What about boys, specifically?’ I took a mouthful of tea and held it.

‘That they can – you know. Tell.

I swallowed. ‘Tell?’

She rolled her eyes at me. ‘Come on.

‘You’ll have to give me something else to go on, darling. I’m good, but I’m not a mind-reader.’

‘It’s embarrassing,’ she muttered.

‘Try me.’

She started to chew the inside of her mouth, and tilted her head so that her hair fell down over her eyes. She huffed several long, pained breaths in and out before finally managing to clothe her thoughts in words. ‘That they can tell if you – if you’ve done it.’

‘Ah.’ I took another mouthful of tea, wondering why it suddenly tasted like acid. ‘That old myth.’

‘Myth?’ she said, flicking her hair out of her face and gazing at me with those eyes, so clear. So like her dad’s. My heart lurched, but it passed.

‘Yup. Think about it. How would they tell? It’s impossible.’

‘Stacey says it’s obvious. Like, on your face, or whatever. She says it’s like you might as well wear a big sign on your back saying ‘Virgin!’ unless you – you know.’

‘Well, no disrespect to Stacey,’ I said, putting down my tea. ‘But she’s talking nonsense.’

‘Really?’ She smiled at me, her dimples showing. ‘Them’s fightin’ words, Mum.’

I grinned. ‘Bring it on.’

She laughed, then – a genuine laugh, head thrown back. I felt a throb of something large surge up my throat, and my eyes filled again, and I had to blink hard to keep it all in.

‘Go, Mum!’ she said, looking back at me. ‘So, it’s for real? They can’t tell?’

‘Nope. Nobody can. Well – maybe a doctor. But that’s all right, isn’t it?’

She shrugged, her eyes falling. ‘Well, it’s good to know.’

I leaned in, and put my hand on her arm. She didn’t pull away, but she didn’t look up. ‘There’s no need to be hasty about anything like this. Do you understand? You have time to make your own choices, in your own time, and don’t let Stacey – or anyone – pressure you. All right, darling?’

‘Yeah, Mum. Keep your wig on.’ She unfolded herself, shaking off my hand. ‘I’ve got homework, okay? See you later.’ She grabbed up her bag and was gone, her untouched tea still steaming on the table, and I nursed my heart for a few moments before hauling myself to my feet and getting on with making dinner.

I wish I’d had a mum like me, I thought, as the carrot peelings piled up and the oven warmedbut then I just put the potatoes on and forgot all about it.

Churn ‘Em Out, Stack ‘Em High

A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing – what else? – writing, specifically the thorny issue of money, and how to marry your writing with your desire to earn. My friend is also a writer, thankfully in a genre that is vastly different to mine – I say ‘thankfully’ because she writes extremely well, and with a savvy eye toward the business-related aspects of the craft. She has experience of self-publishing (at which I’m a total newbie, though I’m learning), and has been a source of support and advice to me for years.

Gimme an S! *S!* Gimme a J! *J!* Image: chatwithrellypops.wordpress.com

Gimme an S! *S!* Gimme a J! *J!* Image: chatwithrellypops.wordpress.com

However, the other day I learned something new about my friend. She told me that she has also published (under a pseudonym) a romance novella, which was, apparently, easy to write, didn’t take up a whole lot of time, and – importantly – earned her a small advance, paid by an American publisher who churns out hundreds of similar novellas every month. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to make it interesting.

‘You should try it,’ she urged. ‘What have you got to lose?’

Interestingly, this is something I have considered before. It’s almost a cliché that writers of romance novels earn packets of money, and writing a good one will propel you into a financial stratosphere of heights heretofore unimagined. There is a huge market for romance novels, because they include everything which is good about humanity in their rather broad church – love, acceptance, growth, learning about oneself, happiness, contented marriage, stable families, happy endings, fulfillment, partnership, personal power – and reading one must be akin to taking a warm bath.

I say ‘must be’ because – and I swear this is the truth – I have never, in my long and eventful life, to the best of my knowledge ever, read a romance novel – as in, a novel wherein the romance is the primary plot feature. Not if you don’t count ‘Twilight’, at least, or some of the YA books I’ve read which feature romantic relationships. I’m talking about the Mills & Boon-type books, the Harlequin Romances, the Nicholas Sparks-type books which (and I don’t mean to offend anyone by saying this) usually bring me out in a rash. I am not a fan of romance novels, which is not to say I am not a fan of romance. I love to love. I just don’t like to read about it. I’m not even a big fan of romantic movies. The only films which might broadly be described in these terms which I can remember really enjoying were ‘(500) Days of Summer’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs The World.’ Technically, I guess, you could call these films romantic, but not really.

Shyeah right. As if I'd be in a romcom. Come on! Ramona Flowers, lead character in 'Scott Pilgrim Vs The World', as played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Image: rottentomatoes.com

Shyeah right. As if I’d be in a romcom. Come on!
Ramona Flowers, lead character in ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs The World’, as played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Image: rottentomatoes.com

But the unarguable fact is: romantic books and movies sell, by the bucketload. They are popular. The authors who write them know what they’re doing, the people who read them know what they want, and it’s a perfect symbiotic relationship.

But here’s the rub.

I firmly believe you can’t write well in a genre unless you’re fully immersed in it, and unless you’ve read widely in it, and unless you’re intimately familiar with its rules and conventions (because, much as we might hate to admit it, every genre has them); so, how on earth would a newbie like me write a successful story in a field in which she has no experience? And, more importantly, should a newbie like me even try?

If I were to write a romance novel, or novella, it would take a huge amount of research. It would involve me changing my usual style, employing different techniques, relying more on description and interiority than dialogue, perhaps; it might involve me toning down my usual snark (which works well in kids’ writing, but not so much in romance, I suspect.) In short, it wouldn’t be as simple as sitting down at the keyboard and bashing at it for a couple of weeks until a fully-fledged novella falls out. Now, in theory, none of this is a bad thing – changing up your writing style, experimenting with new forms, stretching yourself as a writer, and finding a different sort of voice are all good things, which can only add to your skillset. However, I still find myself reluctant to try.

My reluctance stems, I think, from my conviction that it is not fair, nor right, to attempt to cash in on a genre merely because it’s widely perceived to be ‘easy.’ I don’t believe it’s fair to assume that readers of a genre won’t spot a cynical attempt to make money from them; I don’t believe it’s right to expect them to accept second-rate work, and I feel that my own attempts to write in this genre would, by definition, be second-rate. When I write, I do so because I love it and I feel I have something to say. It comes from somewhere very personal and secret. It is me. Writing anything else would be dishonest.

Having said that, I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with writing, say, a non-fiction piece which requires research. If someone wanted me to write two thousand words on the history of lavatory seats, or the precise mechanism by which a safety belt operates, or the relative frothiness of one brand of washing-up liquid over another, I feel sure I could deliver. I have no particular expertise in any of these fields, and I am not an expert in non-fiction, either. But I’d find this less challenging than writing a romance novel. So, then, is it more to do with the fact that not only am I inexperienced in the genre, but I don’t want to engage with it? It’s not so much the research, perhaps, as the subject matter I object to.

Why is that?

Hmmm... Image: theguardian.com

Hmmm…
Image: theguardian.com

I don’t consider myself to be a prude, or a literary snob, but perhaps I am. I don’t like to think that any sort of literature is ‘inferior’ to another; if people are reading, and enjoying it, then it’s all to the good. But, having said that, I rarely read outside my own ‘comfort zone.’ The idea of reading romance novels in order to prepare myself to write one just seems crass and artless, and even slightly suspect.

By the way, I’m not including my friend in any of this. She is a broad-scope writer with fingers in many pies, and her portfolio of skills and experience vastly outstrips mine. Writing a romance novella, for her, would involve none of this mental machination, and I’m sure her work is excellent. I hope it sells by the truckload.

Image: depositphotos.com

Image: depositphotos.com

Then again, perhaps I could be induced. What’s a little research, after all?

One thing I do know is: if I ever do write a romance novel, none of you will ever know about it. It’ll be written under a nom-de-plume so exotic that nobody, not even my mother, will recognise it, and the only people who’ll be aware of a connection between it and me will be the tax authorities. It’s not that I’d be embarrassed by anything I’d write, but because doing it incognito would give me more freedom to say what I like – and that’s always a good freedom to have.

Does anybody have any particular expertise in romantic fiction? Any tips or pointers for me? Or, even, any suggestions for an utterly fabulous pen-name?

 

Serendipity

You know what’s weird? Waking up on a Monday morning with something on your mind, and logging into Facebook to say ‘hello’ to the world, and seeing a post from a person you follow which is about exactly the thing you were thinking about.

That's mad, Ted! Image: quotefully.com

That’s mad, Ted!
Image: quotefully.com

it’s not like this person and I know one another (she’s a celebrity) or that we’re even in the same cultural milieu or general surroundings (we’re, unfortunately, not); it’s just one of those things. In this world of ours, one that’s all about connectivity and ‘sharing’ (a vilely abused word, these days), but wherein the actual human connection can, unfortunately, be easily lost, it’s startling to be reminded that, sometimes, other people’s minds are in exactly the same place yours is in.

And, isn’t that a wonderful thing?

Sadly, the place my mind was in this morning wasn’t exactly a happy place – this article, to which said celebrity provided a link on Facebook and about which she waxed lyrical on her personal page – will tell you all you need to know about my thought processes. I’m thinking about this topic – that of the reality of bereavement, mourning and grief in a world wherein social media is king – mainly because, in the last few years, several of my Facebook and (God love me) Myspace contacts have passed away, but their online presences remain. If a person is lost suddenly, can those left behind (or, should they) find a way to mark their social media outlets with the message that their creator has died? We are the first generation who is faced with the sorrow of seeing a deceased loved one’s name pop up in our newsfeeds every year on their birthday, reminding us to send a card or exhorting us to write a greeting on their Wall, or whatever it is. We are the first generation living with a phenomenon like ‘funeral selfies‘ – the very idea of it makes something break, deep down inside me – and it’s a reminder, once again, that the internet is such a powerful thing. It’s powerful enough to change the way we think, feel, and act. It will be the thing which reshapes human nature, in my opinion.

Or, perhaps, it will be the thing which ushers forth the narcissism that has always been a part of human nature, but which has never before had such an opportunity to become central to how we think about ourselves. I’m not sure which I find more strange – the idea that the internet is making us more self-obsessed, or simply giving us an outlet for the self-obsession that’s already at the heart of our existence.

John William Waterhouse, 'Echo and Narcissus', 1903 Image: en.wikipedia.org

John William Waterhouse, ‘Echo and Narcissus’, 1903
Image: en.wikipedia.org

I do realise that I’m writing a blog, here, and that I’m making use of the internet to put forth my ideas and my thoughts and it’s all about me, me, me… And perhaps that’s the saddest part of the whole thing. The culture in which we live is, like all cultures, all-encompassing. You’re part of it, for good or ill, and making the best of it is all you can do. It does occur to me sometimes that this blog will, probably, outlast me; if I were to die unexpectedly, this blog would remain. Nobody would be able to log in and disable it. It would be like an abandoned, creaking, obsolete space station, slowly pinwheeling its lonely way across the vastness of eternity, forever (or, until it hits a meteorite or burns up in an atmosphere or, you know. Whatever.)

That freaks me out a bit.

It also makes me want to write the best blog I’m capable of – if it’s going to be my memorial, then let’s make it sparkle, goshdarnit!

Actually, no. The ‘freaking out’ thing outweighs everything else.

I’m pretty sure that there’s an element of this self-memorialisation in all art, too. It’s not that we feel we’re such incandescent geniuses that the world needs our art to steer it into the future, but it’s more about feeling like we’ve made a difference, that something we’ve written or made or painted or sung has added to the pot of human culture. Even if nobody remembers our name, our art will live on after we do. It’s getting harder and harder for each individual note to be spotted in the clamouring mish-mash that is our humanity, but that makes the urge to contribute even more pressing; the more difficult it is to be heard, the louder we shout. But what if all that’s being created and contributed is ‘art’ which is ever more inward-looking, all about the self, focused entirely on an individual and their view of the world? We’ll have millions of tiny vortexes, all tightly bound to their own whorling hearts, none of them looking out and seeing what’s there, seeing how we can help, how we can – each of us – make the world a little clearer and easier to bear for everyone.

All art is about the self, but – I feel – it has traditionally spoken to the commonality of shared humanness, too. Nowadays, most of the creative content I see, particularly online, has a larger focus on the ‘self’ of its creator and less focus on the connectedness of its creator to their fellows. Social media allows us to make ourselves into art installations. But what’s the point of creating millions of beautiful, individual pieces of art – which are, in so many ways, our lives – if none of them are truly in conversation with anything else?

‘Sharing’ is not the same as ‘communing’; putting forth our art, our words, our social media posts, our blogs, our music is all rendered a bit pointless if we don’t listen to the contributions of others, and recognise their validity.

And yet, there are days you wake up and someone on the far side of the world is thinking exactly the same thing as you, and they’ve expressed it publicly, and you feel a connection. And – if you’re clever – you use that connection to drive forth your own art, and your own humanness, and you realise that you’re living in an age of miracles, and that all will be well.

Image: ivillage.com

Image: ivillage.com