Tag Archives: writing

Skin

Last week, my family suffered a bereavement so profound, I don’t know if any of us will ever fully recover. This person was actually the second member of our family to pass away since the start of 2020, both of them young people, both of them parents, both of them loved and missed and cherished. It’s been a hard year, so far. A few nights ago, I found my mind wandering back to my childhood, and I remembered this story – one which I’d had published in a now-defunct online zine called wordlegs back in 2013. It’s one I feel a deep attachment to, because it came directly from my memories of being a little girl. Somehow, despite the story’s subject, it brought me comfort; it brought me back to a time when my lost family members lived and breathed and shone with the beauty of their youth. I’m proud of it. The story’s no longer available anywhere online, so I’m republishing it here, with thanks to Elizabeth Reapy, wordlegs‘ editor, who was the first person to see potential in it. Thanks, Elizabeth. (Coincidentally, Elizabeth’s second novel shares a name with this story, though they’re not similar in any other way! I recommend you check it out, along with her first novel, Red Dirt.)

A rabbit on a background of grass

Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash.com

Skin

When I was a child, I had an uncle who hunted. He lived next door in what had been my grandmother’s house, which meant I saw him a lot; somehow, though, we never talked much. He had hounds who followed his every move like acolytes worshipping at the feet of a god, despite the fact that all he did was kick them and call them filthy names. Whenever he walked by their cage, they’d eat each other for the chance to get near him, and they’d howl like nothing on earth. Hearing it made my chest tighten up, like I’d suddenly taken a breath of cotton wool. My mother was always asking him to come in and have dinner, just to come next door for a little while and sit with his family, but he never did. He liked to eat with his memories instead, which didn’t bother me.

I thought my uncle was cruel, though people laughed at me for being ‘soft’.

‘Go on, you old eejit,’ my mother would say. ‘There’s many a dinner we owe to that uncle of yours.’

‘But he hurts his dogs,’ I protested.

‘Arragh, now. Dogs are used to that sort of thing. And anyway, they’re working dogs, duck. They’re not pets.’

I knew that. I knew they didn’t sit in front of his fire at night, snoring gently in the heat, like our dog did. And still, I worried about them.

I worried about everything.

 

About five weeks after my father’s accident, I came home from school to find Mam crying quietly in the sitting room. I stood in the doorway watching her for a while, feeling dizzy and far away. Eventually, she looked up, and she jumped a bit when she saw me.

‘Jesus! Pet, don’t stand there like that. You frightened the life out of me.’ She laughed, a short and hard sound, like a pebble in a shoe; then she hurried to wipe her eyes, rubbing them roughly with the tea-towel she still had in her hands.

‘What’s wrong, Mammy?’ I asked, afraid of what she might tell me.

‘Ah, now. Nothing at all. I just got a bit sad.’ She slapped her hands against her thighs, shoving herself upright in a businesslike, everything-is-great manner. ‘Will we get the dinner on? Are you hungry?’ She messed my hair as she strode past me towards the kitchen. ‘Did you have a good day in school?’

‘Mam, is Daddy all right?’

‘Grand, love! He’s grand!’ she said. But she didn’t turn around and tell me to my face, and that’s how I knew she was lying. She had a thing about looking people in the eyes when she was telling them the truth.

 

My father worked in a factory that handled heavy chemicals. I didn’t know then, and I still don’t really know now, exactly how his accident happened, but it had something to do with a pressure gauge and an over-filled tank, and probably his own negligence in not wearing his safety gear. He’d often told me he and the other men didn’t bother with things like eyeguards and ear-protectors.

‘Sure, I have to be able to hear if the machines are labouring,’ he explained to me once. ‘How can I do that, if I’m all muffled up? If I can’t hear the motor, it could go, and it could kill the man standing beside it. My ears’ll be nice and warm, but someone else’ll be going home on a shovel.’

But it had been my dad who’d been rushed out of the plant in a screaming ambulance, one which had hit the road in spots as it flung itself around the bends on its way to Dublin. It had been him who’d been burned, him whose flesh had melted. Him who was driven out of his mind with the pain.

Him.

Mam hadn’t let me see him for ages, and when I was allowed to visit all I could think about was mummies in ancient Egypt. We’d been doing them in school. Dad’s bandages looked cleaner and whiter, I thought. Other than that, he’d do in a museum.

‘I love you, Daddy.’ I remember telling the tiny square of scarlet I could see peeping out between the swathes of material. ‘I love you.’ I wanted to kiss him, but Mam told me ‘no’. Dad told me nothing, because he couldn’t talk. Anyway, I don’t think he was even awake.

‘Good girl,’ said Mam as we left the hospital, ready for the long journey home. ‘You did very well.’

I wondered all the way home what I could have done better.

 

I was at the kitchen table one evening trying to think about my maths homework when I heard the keening of my uncle’s hounds. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Mam, who was sitting at the far end of the table over a cold cup of tea said, ‘He’s home early. He must’ve had a good hunt.Why don’t you go and have a look, and say hello?’

I swallowed as she spoke, my spit tasting sharp and sour. ‘But Mam – I’m doing my homework, I have loads.’

‘It’s Friday, hon. You’ve plenty of time to do your homework. And your uncle’s been so good. Go and say hello, he’d love it. He’s very fond of you, you know.’

‘No, he isn’t,’ I said. ‘He hates me.’

‘Now, that’s just silly.’ She got up, grabbing her cup of tea, and crossed to the sink to throw it away. ‘Go on outside now, just for a few minutes, and I’ll have a treat for you when you come back in.’

‘What sort of a treat?’ I didn’t move from my perch in front of my copy book. I drew a line under my sums, carefully, and kept working. I still couldn’t add up properly without drawing dots beside the numbers like a baby out of Senior Infants, but at least I’d learned to draw them lightly so I could rub them out afterwards. I hated maths, but it was my dad’s favourite thing in the world besides rock and roll. I wanted to show him how good I was at adding and multiplying when he came home from the hospital.

‘God, Claire, I don’t know,’ snapped Mam. ‘A bit of apple tart. I’ll make you some custard. All right? Just go on outside, just for a few minutes, and talk to your uncle. I’ll call you when you can come back in.’

I slapped my copy book shut and shoved myself out from the table, making the legs of my chair stutter and skip along the lino. The sound of it normally drove Mam crazy. Today, she said nothing. She just stood and watched me as I stamped over to the back door and wrenched it open.

‘Good girl. I’ll only need a minute.’

 

I crept out of our back yard and into the lane, watching my uncle beat his dogs into his garden. It wasn’t a bit like ours, full of greenery and flowers; my uncle had covered his over with roughly-finished concrete after my granny had died, the shed that had been her pride and joy now a falling-down monstrosity beside the pristine dog pen. I hung close to our back door until he’d corralled the last hound, thwacking and slapping at them with a thick stick, shouting until they listened to his voice over the red-misted pounding of their own hearts.

They all had names, these dogs, despite the fact that all my uncle ever did was abuse and hurt them. But he gave them all names.

Over his garden wall, a clutch of freshly-caught rabbits lay. I didn’t touch them, but I felt sure they’d be still warm and supple, their eyes still bright. Perhaps their last breath hadn’t been fully exhaled. I felt a sour taste in my mouth again, and I swallowed hard against the rush of sudden liquid up my throat.

‘Howya,’ said my uncle as he slid home the lock on his garden gate, nodding vaguely in my direction. I returned the greeting, and perched on our back step to watch him. I tried to think about things I could say to him, but he made me scared, so I didn’t say anything.

He started to sing under his breath, huffing out through his nose, as he grabbed his huge knife from its holder on his belt. He wiped the blade once or twice on his trouser leg before severing the twine that bound the rabbits together. They plopped wetly onto the stone slabs he’d untidily cemented on the top of the wall.

Despite myself, I watched.

‘Time to drop your drawers,’ my uncle muttered, taking one of the rabbits in his hand. He held it up, the rabbit swinging gently as he turned it this way and that, appraising it. Then, he laid it flat on the wall and swiftly, as easily as if he was tying his shoelaces, he ran the knife around the rabbit’s legs, one at a time. He worked at the carcass with his fingers for a few minutes, the movement looking almost gentle.

When he pulled at the rabbit’s pelt, ripping it away from the body like he was removing a sock, I screamed so loudly that I gave him a fright. He dropped the knife and turned to stare at me. Perhaps he’d forgotten I was there.

It was the redness. The rawness of the flesh. The muscles, clearly visible; the sinews and tendons. The colour, so private and painful. Something I should not be able to see. White bandages flashed into my mind, white bandages and scarlet skin. Scarlet skin and pain, and pain equalling death.

I ran for the door to my house, slamming it, not caring about the noise.

My mother was on the phone in the hall, clutching the tea-towel to her eyes. I ignored her and ran for my room.

 

‘Claire,’ I heard her say, much later. ‘Come out here, please.’ My closed door muffled her voice.

I was buried in my duvet, my face swollen and sore. I’d cried all evening. My mother’s phone call had been brought to a swift end after I’d burst back into the house, but she’d mentioned ‘doctor’ and ‘treatment,’ and she’d wept, before she’d been able to hang up. I’d stuffed my head under my pillow, trying not to hear, but I had anyway.

‘Claire,’ she said again, knocking gently. ‘Come on, please. I want to speak to you, young lady.’

Every muscle ached. I felt like a piece of paper, crumpled up so badly it could never sit flat again. I stumbled to the door and pulled it open. My Mam’s eyes were full of tears, and that set me going again. I let her wrap me up in a hug, her belly warm and soft. I tried not to wet her jumper, but I didn’t really manage it. My face was soaking, and covered in snot.

‘Your uncle is downstairs, love. He wants to talk to you.’

My heart jolted, and I shook my head, grinding my eyes shut. My mother soothed my sobbing shoulders, stroking me gently. She kissed the top of my head. ‘Shush, now. He wants to say sorry.’

She evicted me from the embrace and stood me back from her, arm’s-length away. She rubbed my clammy cheeks with her rough thumbs.

‘Try and smile, pet. Try and be nice.’

I nodded, two more hot, fat tears spilling out. Mam wiped them away.

 

My uncle stood in the kitchen, looking out of place. It was like seeing a clown saying Mass. He had his flat cap scrunched in his hands, and something else too. I couldn’t see it properly.

‘Claire, Uncle Paddy has something he wants to give you,’ Mam said.

I glanced up at my uncle’s sun-darkened face. I noticed, for the first time in my life, that he had bright blue eyes. Brighter even than Dad’s.

‘I’m awful sorry, duck,’ said my uncle. His spoke quiet and low and liquidy, like he had a cold. ‘I should’ve thought.’

I felt Mam shove me from behind, her fingers sharp in my back.

‘That’s all right, Uncle Paddy,’ I said. I ran my fingers over my hot and sticky cheeks, wiping away the last traces of tears, suddenly feeling shy.

‘Here you are. Your Da was always saying how much you loved reading. I haven’t a lot of time for it myself any more.’ He cleared his throat with a sound like someone taking their foot out of a cowpat and held out a roughly-wrapped brown paper parcel.

‘What do you say, Claire?’ Mam asked.

I looked up at my uncle again. He had grey in his hair, all around his ears just like dad had, and soft wrinkles around his eyes that were so familiar.

I ran my hands along the jagged edges of the tape he’d used to wrap up my gift. ‘Thank you,’ I whispered.

‘Now,’ he said. ‘I’ll be gettin’ on, so.’

‘Will you not stay for your dinner, Paddy? I’ve plenty in the pot.’

‘Not at all, not at all. Sure I’ve my own bit made, inside. I’m grand altogether.’

‘All right so, Paddy. If you’re sure,’ said Mam, eventually.

My uncle nodded and started twisting his cap again, looking down at his muck-encrusted boots. ‘I’m after draggin’ half the field in here,’ he said.

‘Never you mind. It’s only a bit of muck. It’ll all be grand. Won’t it, Claire?’

I smiled up at my uncle, and he nodded at Mam before throwing me a wink. I clutched my book to my chest as my uncle turned towards the door.

‘Yes, Mam,’ I said, as my uncle slipped out the back door into the evening.

 

 

Crossing Places

A few days ago, while playing among our books, The Toddler pulled out a slim volume which caught my eye. It was a book – or, more truly, a notebook – which I hadn’t seen in a very long time.

A very long time.

winnie-the-pooh-notebook

Photo credit: SJ O’Hart.

This notebook was a gift from my schoolfriends to me on my 17th birthday. In it, they had each written a little note wishing me a happy birthday and how much they were looking forward to celebrating with me; some wished me a bright future, and others shared funny stories (some of the details of which, sadly, have blurred with time). Many put their first names and their surnames, just in case I lost the notebook and didn’t find it again for so long that I’d have forgotten who they were. One spent four pages insulting me in the most colourfully hilarious language imaginable and didn’t bother signing his name because he knew (rightly) that we’d be friends forever and I’d never get around to forgetting him – and his message still made me laugh out loud.

I read it with a huge grin and, if I’m being honest, a few tears too – and not just because my 17th birthday is so long ago now that you’d need a telescope to see it.

This notebook’s reappearance in my life made me think a lot about intersections and choices, the random algorithms that bring people into your life and take them out of it again. I’m delighted that most of the people who wrote in my book are still my friends; a few I haven’t seen in a couple of years, and one I haven’t seen, sadly, since we left school. But I remembered them all, even without the surnames. Each of them was important to me, and many still are – and there’s not one among them I wouldn’t be glad to see again, right now. They’re all (as far as I know) still alive and well, and though most of them still live in Ireland there are a couple who left – one for America, one for the UK – and very few of them still live at home, where we all grew up. We all entered one another’s lives through the simple coincidence of being born at around the same time and either growing up in, or moving to, the same place in time to attend secondary school together. Besides that, we are as disparate a group of people as you could find.

And yet, we are bound to one another forever.

I was thinking, recently, about the ‘quantum’ versions of myself – by which I mean, fancifully, the versions of me which exist in every other imaginable universe. Would I be doing the same things I’m doing here, in this space? Would I be the same person? Would I live in the same place, with the same people? Who’s to know. Every life has its ‘crossing places’, points at which the choices you make determine the path you take. My life has had several of those, some of which I would dearly love to relive. If it were possible, would I take different paths? Would I make different choices? I have some regrets; people I have lost whom I miss, people I loved who never knew it, things I wish I’d had the bravery to do when I had the chance.

And yet, the choices I made have led me here, to this room, in which I’m typing. My child is a few feet away, playing. John Grant is on my stereo. The proof of my first book is sitting on the table beside me. Things are not perfect: the world is far from good. I, like many, have found the last few days very hard, for many reasons. But as lives go, I can’t complain about mine. It has been circuitous and challenging, and I look back on so much of it with a nostalgia bordering on pain, but – in one manner or another – everything I have ever wanted or worked for has come to pass.

But as my child grows, these are the lessons I will impart:

  1. If you love a person, tell them. Even if they don’t love you, and you know it; even if you fear rejection. Tell them, without expectation, because regret is a far heavier burden than embarrassment, and it grows heavier with time.
  2. If you have an opportunity to travel, take it.
  3. Ditto with studying.
  4. In fact, if you have an opportunity to travel and study, take it. With both hands. And don’t worry about how you’ll work things out – you will.
  5. If offered a job you don’t think you can do, try it anyway.
  6. If you want to go on an adventure, do it.
  7. Always treasure your friends.
  8. And never stop working for what you want, fighting for what you believe in, and doing everything you can to help others, as far as you can.

Every life has its crossing places, but hopefully my child’s will have fewer than mine – and, with any luck, friends and friendship will be a big part of it, as they have been for me.

Thank you to my friends, all of them, past and present and future. I’m lucky to have, and to have had, such love.

 

Around the Bend in Eighty Days

*coughs* *blows dust off blogging seat*

So. Been a while, right? It feels like forever since I’ve swept my way around Clockwatching… towers, but it’s only been a couple of months (not quite the eighty days of the title, but c’mon. It was too good not to use). Thanks to you all for sticking with me (my stats have been booming, guys! Love to all y’all) and for being interested in what I’m doing and how things have been for me and my little family.

Well. In short, things have been great.

And terrible.

Great and terrible. I think anyone with a new baby can relate. We’ve had nights of relentless screaming, and we’ve had moments of pure panic, and we’ve had instances of utter and complete raglessness (as a friend put it, very aptly) when I’ve managed to lose my head completely. I’ve been down the road of Post-Natal Depression, and I’ve realised that I’m not as strong nor as naturally maternal as I always assumed, and I’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with admitting that things are getting overwhelming  and you need help. I was terrible at accepting help before the baby came along. Sometimes, though, you just need to let someone else do your dishes or sweep your floor, no matter how much it pains you.

I’m very lucky to have had immense amounts of help from family and friends, and to have years’ worth of wisdom to draw on from people who have been here before me. So thank you to everyone. There are a couple of friends (no names, but they know who they are) who’ve been particularly amazing. So cheers to them both. Neither me nor baby would be in quite such good shape without my little backing crew – and boy do I know it!

 

elvis

Everyone needs their backing crew – even the King. Photo Credit: Lawrence Chard via Compfight cc

But things have begun to get back to normal. Baby is getting older, and more settled, and we are all getting used to one another. Routines are being established. Smiling has started happening – and not just the sort of smiling one gets from a baby with a full stomach, but the sort that says ‘I see you. I know you. You’re my family.’ Any amount of sleepless worry is worth that tiny flicker of love. We’ve bought a baby sling – a cloth carrier – which Junior seems to enjoy (fingers crossed) and we’re experimenting with cloth nappies, which hasn’t been going so well.

But enough about that.

I’ve been learning lots of new skills, too (as well as not forgetting my old ones; I was terrified I’d have forgotten how to type, or spell, or think – but luckily all seems intact!) and discovering that having a baby really prepares you for so many different sorts of career paths. If the writing thing goes belly-up, I feel vastly qualified already to do any of the following:

Mind reader: Because when you spend most of your time interacting with a person who is non-verbal and whose idea of a good conversation involves screaming, flailing, dribbling, fixing you with a series of intense stares, and fairly random body convulsions, you get good at interpreting thought patterns. (Or just making use of guesswork. Who knows?)

Interpretive dancer/mime artist: Until you’ve caught yourself dancing round your kitchen to ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, making gooey faces and accompanying your vocal performance with limb twitching, you haven’t lived.

Animal wrangler: Babies eat. A lot. All the time. Around the clock. This means they need to be fed at night. My baby does not like waking up at night to feed. It happens, however, despite Junior’s best intentions, and after hours of moaning and groaning and snuffling and whuffling and kicking off of blankets, eventually baby comes to and instantly – instantly – the wailing for milk will begin. Now. Trying to balance a scarily strong infant on one knee while warming up a bottle (which involves dealing with boiling water in the dark, which is always fun) and attempting to get the milk down said infant’s neck without scalding someone and/or the infant back-flipping out the bedroom window is a true skill. I feel fully prepared to take up a job as a weasel wrestler any day now.

CIA operative: Admittedly my knowledge of what CIA operatives do is largely based on watching ‘Homeland’, but it seems to involve withstanding torture a lot of the time. Listening to a colicky baby screaming for hours on end will prepare anyone for that. Believe me.

Land speed record holder: For when you’re downstairs and the baby monitor informs you of disaster unfolding upstairs, or you’re in another room (taking a Xanax, perhaps) and you hear the air-raid siren warming up in its bassinet, you run. You run. And after a while you get pretty fast.

Lip reader: When you’re silly enough to try to watch TV with a baby, you need to be able to lip read. Go figure.

Statistician: Anyone who has ever spoken to a new parent will agree on one thing: they talk about poop. A lot. How often the baby goes. How long it takes. What colour it is. What consistency it is. The sheer power of its aroma, based on how similar it smells to the Bog of Eternal Stench. And so on. We’ve taken to keeping a poop log (no sniggering down the back) where we record times of poops and what sort they are. We also have a feeding log. We like to map the data. In graph form. Don’t judge us, for we are nerds.

Somnambulist: Not that this is a job, per se. But it’s definitely a skill. I walked up and down the stairs without opening my eyes once, and didn’t realise I’d done it until I was back in the baby’s room. Sort of scary, but a bit impressive too.

Anyway. One thing you’ll note is, of course, that having a baby doesn’t exactly lend itself to writing. I haven’t written anything longer than a Tweet for many many moons. My WordPress back-end has changed beyond recognition, and I’m feeling at sea even on this blog, my safe place. However – there is light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps I speak too soon, but – here it is, whisper it – I’m getting the hang of this parenting lark.

So. Before too long I hope to be back to a semi-regular schedule. I hope to get back to work. I have ideas still pinging into my dried up little brain – not so many, and not all good, but they’re coming – and so I hope to have time, and something to write about, as the new year rises.

Until then, wish me luck. And thank you for still being here. It does this tired mama’s heart good to see it. Adios, till next time!

 

Rules are Made to be Gently Bent

Recently, a very good friend of mine started up a brand-new blog called Home Grown Heaven. Before we go any further, I’d strongly recommend you follow the link and have a snoop about; there’s not a lot there to see yet, but it’s definitely worth the trip. Make sure to bookmark and follow along, if you have any sense. Trust me: it’ll do you good. My friend’s blog is not about writing, or books, or words, or the existential angst that seems to hang around this blog like a miasma, but is instead about the challenges and joys of living ‘off the land’ and following your dream of being sustainable, affordable and ethical in your everyday existence. In short, all the things I love in life, besides the written word.

Also, it’s very pretty and full of lovely photographs of flowers and ducks and home baking. Go on! What are you waiting for? I’ll be here when you get back, and I’ll probably have just finished boiling the kettle. Right?

Don't mind me. I'm fine here, just hanging out...  Photo Credit: Allison Richards (atrphoto) via Compfight cc

Don’t mind me. I’m fine here, just hanging out…
Photo Credit: Allison Richards (atrphoto) via Compfight cc

Okay. You see? I told you it’d be worth it.

Now.

Because I’ve been blogging for a while, with varying levels of success, my friend approached me when the idea for her blog began to form. She wanted to know what this blogging thing was all about, anyway, and how to begin to go about it. And because I love feeling like an expert, I (of course) was happy to share my hard-won knowledge. However, as I tried to help her, I began to realise exactly how many ‘rules’ of blogging I have recently begun to bend so far that, essentially, I’ve broken them.

Whoops. But do as I say, not do as I do. Right?

Firstly, I used to blog every day. For a long time, I enjoyed doing that. I had plenty to say; I burned with passion and fire. Of course there were days when I wondered if the inspiration fairy would pay me a visit, but I was very rarely left high and dry. I’m not saying it was easy (and after a couple of years it began to be a burden), but it was a challenge, and I do love those. Also, because I’d begun my blogging journey by writing a new post every day, I felt as though I couldn’t possibly stop posting every day.

Until I did.

As 2015 dawned, I began to see that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I stopped blogging every day. I tried to commit to a regular schedule, but that doesn’t always work either. Some weeks I blog on Mondays and Wednesdays; other weeks it’s Tuesdays and Thursdays. Some weeks I don’t blog at all. Such an idea would have been unthinkable two years ago. And one of the first rules of blogging is: Write posts on predictable days, so that your readers know when they can expect new content. This is a good rule. It’s one I passed on to my friend. But it’s not one I keep anymore, myself. However, I have learned something important, and it is this: the day your blog begins to feel like an unbearable weight, and the idea that you have to write a blog post is like a sharp pebble in your shoe, it’s time to take a step back. Blogging should be, by and large, a joy, something you do because you’re bubbling over with stuff you want to share, and because you want to help others. When it stops feeling like that, take a break.

Another rule of blogging is: Pick a topic about which you’re passionate, and which you can see a long-term future in. In other words, don’t jump on the nearest fad and start to build a blog around it. You’ve got to ask yourself: in a year, will anyone care? This is why I blog about writing, because it’s basically the one thing I do most often; it’s why my friend chose to blog about smallholding, because that’s her passion. They are also topics which have longevity. My writing will (hopefully) form the basis of my career, and my friend’s work on her land will be the means by which she sustains her family, long-term. That isn’t to say that a blog about (say) armadillos can’t occasionally discuss platypi (or, if you prefer, ‘platypuses’) or a blog about roof tiles can’t sometimes become sidetracked with mosaics, but it’s good to keep a focus on your topic.

Sometimes, I don’t do this either. Sometimes, there just isn’t anything to say about writing. Those days are hard and scary, and they make me wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Some days, I don’t blog about writing for the simple reason that I just don’t have any news: the road to being published is long and sometimes boring (and I’m in a long, boring patch right now), and I really don’t feel as though I have anything useful to share. So my blog ends up being about feminism, or crime, or social commentary, or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with this, as such, but it’s not always recommended.

There is one rule, however, which I have religiously kept since the day I first decided to begin this blogging journey, and that is: Always write with honesty. This rule is definitely one I passed on to my friend, because it’s something I really do believe in. There’s no point in blogging if you’re going to assume a ‘personality’; you’ve got to be you, behind the words. I have always written from my heart, and because I know my friend well, I can tell you that her words on Home Grown Heaven are from the heart, too. Whatever other rules you bend or break when it comes to blogging, this is one you really should keep.

Because if you find yourself having to pretend, then maybe it’s time to stop blogging altogether.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

Life, my friends, is getting in the way again. I’m busy, distracted, not altogether in the peak of health, and struggling with tiredness like nothing I’ve ever struggled with before.

I’m fine, of course. All will be well. But my own work has ground to a crushing halt (which I deeply regret), and I don’t have any pithy advice to dispense, and I am all out of clever ways around writers’ block (unlike these guys), and I certainly don’t feel like much of an authority on anything these days, besides self-pity.

So.

This is a post about some stuff I’ve read lately which I’ve found particularly inspirational, interesting and/or useful. Not all of it is about writing – some of it is just about life. But it’s all good. Put the kettle on, relax, and share a cuppa with me, won’t you? Good-oh.

Aaah. Lip-smacking good! Photo Credit: markhassize11feet via Compfight cc

Aaah. Lip-smacking good!
Photo Credit: markhassize11feet via Compfight cc

On Being a Fat Bride

Some of you who’ve been around these parts for a while may know about my struggles with body image, weight and self-esteem. It’s something I take a huge interest in, this cultural obsession with thinness, and particularly the ‘health trolling’ which can surround commentary about women (in particular) and their bodies in the media. People feel it’s their right to treat those with weight issues like they were less than human, sometimes, and worthy of nothing but disrespect and ridicule. I hate that more than I hate almost anything else in the world. I am a person who struggles. I am a person who has struggled all her life. Most importantly, I am a person, and I deserve to be treated as such – not simply as a person who is fat. Sadly, this is so often not the case.

Several years ago, I got married. I felt great on the day, but I had trouble finding a suitable dress in the weeks and months leading up to the event itself. I had to think about things like covering myself up, pulling myself in, camouflaging things I hated about my appearance, and making sure the gown I chose was ‘flattering’. So, when I read this article by journalist Lindy West, about her own wedding day and how she was a happy, joyous, celebratory – and unapologetically, unashamedly fat – bride, it made me well up. Like Lindy, I loved my wedding day. Unlike her, I didn’t have the same sense of freedom around my appearance. I regret that I didn’t allow myself the space to enjoy my body, and that this is something I generally have trouble with. The article inspired me. I loved it. Have a read. But if you come across any comments, either relating to this version of the article or any of the numerous versions of it which were reprinted in other media outlets, do yourself a favour and skip those. Trust me.

On the label ‘MG’ and what it signifies

I love Philip Reeve. He’s a creative powerhouse and a central figure in the world of children’s books, both as a writer and an illustrator. He wrote a blog post in recent days about the label ‘Middle Grade’, or ‘MG’, and why it gets attached with such alacrity to children’s books outside of the United States, where the term ‘middle grade’ is meaningless. This is something which has bothered me, too, for a long time, but I could never articulate it quite the way Reeve has done. Perhaps his take on the issue is rather contentious, and somewhat divisive, but I largely agree with him. And, for once, the comments are ace and well worth reading (probably because most of them are written by children’s book professionals!)

On Illustrating, Illustrators, and the Hard Work of Being Creative

Sarah McIntyre (who has, incidentally, regularly worked with Philip Reeve) is another children’s book professional whom I admire hugely. She is an illustrator and a creator of picture books, and for a long time now she has been building a campaign online under the tagline #PicturesMeanBusiness, which aims to ensure illustrators start to get the recognition they deserve. I will hold my hands up and say that before I came across this campaign, I was a typical ‘text-fixated’ type; illustrations (whether they were on the cover or dotted inside the book) were, for me, an added bonus, but not something I thought about too deeply. That has all changed now. Before, I used to make sport of finding the illustrator’s name (usually in tiny type somewhere on the back of the book, or in the copyright/publication metadata at the front, and sometimes not included at all); now, I’m not happy unless illustrators get full credit, whether it’s online or in clear font, somewhere visible on the book jacket. I hope more people will get on board with this, and that we’ll see a change beginning in the world of publishing. For more, see Sarah McIntyre’s recent blog post on the process of producing illustrations, and how it’s a lot harder than it looks.

On Being a Weirdo (and Why it Rocks)

I’ve never read Laura Dockrill’s books, despite the fact that she seems like a fascinating person with a unique voice. This article, which she wrote for the Guardian during the week, might make me take the plunge into her wacky imaginary world, for once and for all. In it, she talks about the importance of being yourself, no matter how weird you might be – in fact, the weirder the better, it seems. This is one of the reasons I love books for young readers; they have such power to shape thinking, to alter the course of a life for the better, to influence and affect and make a difference. Not only do children’s books possess some of the most imaginative world-building, language use and characterisation in literature, but they make the children who read them feel part of something bigger, comfort them in times of challenge, make them see they’re not alone, and (hopefully) help them to be happier in their own shoes. And what could be better than that?

Nothing. That’s what.

And finally there’s this great list of reads from some of the contributors to the site (gasp!) Middle Grade Strikes Back, which details what people are bringing off on holiday with them to keep them company by the pool. I’ve read several, but most are new to me. Maybe they’ll inspire you, too.

Au revoir for now, poupettes. Stay well. I hope I’ll be back soon – and that there’ll actually be some writing news to tell you!

Branford Boase, and the Magic of Books for Young Readers

Today (Tube strikes and other Acts of God bedamned!) the results of the 2015 Branford Boase Award will be announced. The Branford Boase is an amazing thing: an award presented to the best debut novel written for children/YA published in a particular year, which also recognises the vital role the editor/s have in bringing stories to their fullest life, and which always attracts a stellar long- and shortlist.

This year – even though I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist! – I have no idea how the judges are going to choose. It’s a job I’d simultaneously love and loathe – love, because you’d get to read so many incredible books, but loathe because I’d love all of them equally and choosing would be impossible. (But I’d give it a shot, just in case anyone’s listening).

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

As this article (from which the image is drawn) makes clear, the shortlist this year is extremely strong indeed. Every single book on the list deserves, in one way or another, to be rewarded, and certainly they all deserve to be read. Lest anyone think for a minute that books aimed at readers who are teens, or younger, aren’t worth bothering with, shall we consider the sort of subject matter these books deal with?

Yes. Yes, I think we shall.

To kick off, we have a book (Bone Jack, written by Sara Crowe, edited by Charlie Sheppard and Eloise Wilson) which deals with PTSD and alienation, loneliness and confusion, ancient pagan ritual and blood-soaked legend, where forces older than humanity are seen to still have sway over modern life and the power of the land is still strong. So Alan Garner-esque. So spine-chillingly amazing.

We also have a book (Trouble, written by Non Pratt and edited by Annalie Granger and Denise Johnstone-Burt) which deals with teenage pregnancy, the bonds of friendship, and the difficulties of growing up a little bit more quickly than you’d intended, as well as family complication, bodily autonomy and the travails of having to go through the most challenging thing you’ve ever experienced while still having to deal with school, and all its stresses

Then there’s a book (Half Bad, written by Sally Green and edited by Ben Horslen) which is an excellent, pacy, gripping read about a boy who is half White Witch and half Black Witch, in a world like our own but in which magic is an accepted part of everyday life. Hated and mistrusted because of who his father was, can he overcome his genetics and magical inheritance – and does he want to?

As if that wasn’t enough, we have a book (Cowgirl, written by Giancarlo Gemin and edited by Kirsty Stansfield) which takes a look at life on an underprivileged housing estate in Wales, and one girl’s attempt to break free of the misery she sees all around her through connecting with an ‘ideal’. These attempts bring her into the sphere of the legendary Cowgirl, and embroils her in the fate of a doomed herd of cattle – if she can save them, can she save herself?

There’s also the deeply moving Year of the Rat, written by Claire Furniss and edited by Jane Griffiths, in which a young girl named Pearl must deal with feelings she can hardly process in the aftermath of her mother’s death in childbirth. Her baby sister (whom she refers to as the Rat) comes into the world as their mother leaves it, and Pearl lashes out, keeps secrets, has ‘visions’ of her deceased mother, and eventually breaks down. Here is a book about love and grief which doesn’t hide from the darkness.

I’m not so familiar with the final two shortlstees, but they sound incredible too:

Leopold Blue by Rosie Rowell, edited by Emily Thomas, is set in South Africa during apartheid, and tells the story of a friendship which crosses the divide. Taking in the social issues of the day, including the scourge of HIV/AIDS, this is a realistic and significant book dealing with turbulent recent history.

The Dark Inside by Rupert Wallis, edited again by Jane Griffiths, is a story about two wounded people finding their way forward together, both dealing with the after-effects of abuse and trauma, and of the dark ‘curse’ which haunts their steps. Sounding a lot like a work of magical realism, this is one I need to read at my first available opportunity – but then I say that to all the books.

If these sketchy synopses aren’t enough to demonstrate that the world of children’s and YA books is about so much more than angsty love triangles and sulky heroines with floppy hair, then I’ll eat my hat. The breadth of imagination here, the wealth of story, the accomplishment in this shortlist alone is enough to make me want to do a joyful jig (but don’t worry, I won’t) that the world of writing for young readers is so vibrant, diverse, imaginative and simply brilliant. It’s where it’s at, people. Get on board.

And stay tuned to the Branford Boase Twitter account later today to find out who wins…

Sidling In

So. Um. *scuffs toe of shoe*

Yeah. It’s been a while since I blogged. A week, you say? A whole week? Couldn’t be.

(It is).

I wish I could say something like ‘well, I’m terribly sorry, but when Brad and Angie call you at the last minute and invite you to their chateau for a mini-break, what idiot would say no?’ or ‘apologies for my absence, but I was abseiling down the Burj Al-Arab’, but in reality – hard as it may be to believe – I was doing neither of these things.

Photo Credit: fizaco via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: fizaco via Compfight cc

Life got in the way, folks. Simple as. I had more medical tests. I had some tiredness. I had busy stuff going on, all of which is very boring for anyone who isn’t me. It did, however, mean that I was away from my desk a lot, and not exactly in the right mindspace for blogging. I do heartily apologise. My schedule is going to be out of whack for the next few weeks, but I will try to be better – though I do beg your forbearance.

I did some reading, though, while I was away, and I also did some writing. Not as much as I wanted, but some. I had a day during the week with a lot of down-time in the middle, so I sat with a notebook in a cafe and worked through a vague-ish plan for the rest of my current WiP, gathering ideas – and in at least one exciting moment, realising that a rootless, context-free idea I’d had several months ago would now fit quite nicely indeed into my current work, with a few tweaks. You’ve just got to love moments like those, and it proves once again that no idea should ever be wasted. Even if, like this one, it comes at you out of the blue with absolutely no explanation or lead-up, like a blob of gelatinous something-or-other that just splats into your brain from on high. Write it down. Keep it safe. Let it percolate. Eventually, you’ll see something or hear something that’ll spark off a thought, which will spark off another thought, which will lead to a fully-formed idea so awesome that your heart will start to pound, and which you’d never have had if you hadn’t kept hold of that original odd little spark of inspiration.

You know you’re onto a good thing when your heart starts to pound and you can’t write fast enough to keep up with your brain. Those are the moments we live for, right?

After all this feverish inspiration, I wrote a pitch for my current WiP (a useful thing to do, fellow writers, when you want to help an idea coalesce), and emailed it off to my agent without too much thought. ‘Here’s something I’ve been working on,’ I said. ‘It’s not finished, by a long shot, but I just wanted you to know what I’m up to.’ Immediately, I regretted it; she’ll be too busy, or she’ll have far too much else on her plate right now what with judging X competition and accepting submissions for Y event and attending at least three book fairs simultaneously with the aid of holographic technology, I told myself. Really, though, I was afraid she’d email back doing the equivalent of holding my pitch between finger and thumb, looking disgusted, and saying: ‘This? This, here, is what you’ve spent months working on?’ And then she’d wash her hands of me completely.

But she didn’t do that.

‘Sounds great,’ she said, by return of email. ‘I’m excited to read the draft, when it’s done. Here are my questions.’ And she proceeded to ask me probing, useful, interesting things about the outline I’d sent, making me at once understand that a pitch I’d thought was entirely clear had, in fact, skimmed over some things to an unacceptable level and that I had a lot more thinking to do about at least one major aspect of my plot and world-building. In the course of answering her questions, I also realised something else: simply thinking about these questions and formulating answers to them was really helping me get a handle on what I’m trying to write about. (See how good my agent is? She teaches me even without trying to).

I’m closing in on 30,000 words with this draft. The going is slow, but I’m enjoying it. I’m back in a pseudo-historical fantasy setting with characters who are brave and funny and up for adventure, and world-threatening technology which must be harnessed for good, and crafty baddies, and all manner of questing and travelling and discovery, and it’s truly where my heart belongs. It took me a long time to get here, but I think I’ve managed to fetch up in just the right place.

Happy fourth of July weekend to those who celebrate, and happy weekend to those who don’t. Whatever you’re doing, remember to be good, be happy and spread as much love as you possibly can. This poor, tired old world needs it more than ever.

Flash! Friday – ‘Unforeseen’

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, promotional still from 1936.  Public domain photo, sourced at flashfriday.wordpress.com

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, promotional still from 1936.
Public domain photo, sourced at flashfriday.wordpress.com

Unforeseen

It’s there, in my mind, like a weed. This was too easy.

She’s never left the cage unlocked before. Not even for her cigarette breaks, or to eat – though she doesn’t eat much, now. But this morning she rose from her desk, mid-sentence, a ribbon of smoke rising from her ashtray, and left the room.

My cage stood open.

I ran, of course. Who wouldn’t? It’s not that she mistreats me, but captivity is a torment. I’m a free spirit. I’m –

Oh, Zeus. She’s coming! It’s been so long since I was loose that I can’t remember where I am, or where to go. I must hide! But she keeps me in rags, barefoot, and anyway I may not leave this dwelling. Separated from her, I will die. Is that irony? I should know.

Every writer needs a Muse, and I am hers, soul-bound. She doesn’t need to cage me, but she can’t trust me to stay.

I reach a dead end. I turn, desperate, but she is behind me.

There you are,’ she croons. ‘Enjoy your run? Had to get your blood up, somehow. You’ve really been underperforming lately.’ Her smile is a sudden blade.

Ah, me. My fatal flaw? Plot twists have long been my undoing.

***

So – yay! This piece of flash fiction has taken me *hours* to complete, but hey. I finished it. It’s mine! I did it! It’s been so long since I entered any sort of flash fiction competition that I half-expected never to complete a piece again, so I’m glad I proved myself wrong. My old brain cells aren’t firing on full power, as is clear from the Titanic struggle this story caused within me, but heck. A challenge ain’t a challenge if it ain’t hard, right?

So. You’re going to head on over to Flash! Friday and throw your name in the ring, right? You’re not going to leave me hanging? Good friends don’t do that sort of thing. Go on. Go on. Go on, go on, go on, you will, you will, go on…

Finding the Flow

Yesterday, I had to have some medical tests done (Nothing serious! Don’t go rushing to purchase yards of black tulle and/or order the memorial cards just yet), and they were not fun. These things rarely are, I find. They involved several blood draws, which had to occur after I’d been fasting, including no water (the unimaginable cruelty!) for 12 hours.

I’m a deep-veined, thin-veined person, and I’m comfortably upholstered. Finding a suitable vessel from which to take a blood sample is challenging at the best of times, for even the most gifted of phlebotomists. However, when one hasn’t eaten or drunk anything for half a day beforehand, it means that, basically, the nurse and I were one step away from getting out a naked blade and slashing me with it in order to get the samples she needed.

We didn’t, though. FYI.

'Hold still, dear! This won't hurt a bit, I promise!' Photo Credit: megadem via Compfight cc

‘Hold still, dear! This won’t hurt a bit, I promise!’
Photo Credit: megadem via Compfight cc

In the course of the mutilation… I mean, examination, the nurse chatted away to me, as nurses are wont to do when they’re seeking to distract you from the fact that they’re holding a nasty-looking needle which is thirsting for your blood. Among the topics we discussed were what I did with myself on a daily basis, and my career – and, for once, I didn’t bluster and splutter and make something up, as I sometimes do when real adults ask me about myself, but I told her the truth.

‘I write books for children,’ I said, with every pretence at confidence. ‘Actually, I have a deal with a US publisher, and my book will be coming out next year.’

‘Really?‘ she said, bright-eyed, as she jabbed the needle in. ‘Well, isn’t that just fabulous.’ As the trickle began to do its thing, she asked me all about the book, and what it was about, and where it was set, and how long it took to write, and all manner of other questions. The words flowed out of my desiccated body a lot more easily than my blood did, and I told her all about it because it was better than thinking about what was going on.

She was rapt. Now, I’m aware she was somewhat of a captive audience, and didn’t (let’s be fair) have a whole lot else to do at the time, as I’m sure taking blood is something she could do in her sleep. But still. Her interest appeared genuine. She was fascinated by the book’s setting, which is sort of an imagined version of our own world, transposing a lot of our modern environmental problems onto a older historical setting, and she was interested to know about the age bands in children’s and Young Adult literature. A lot of people don’t think of ‘children’s books’ as being anything besides picture books or early readers for 5-8 year olds; they tend to forget about the richness of the Middle Grade years, the 8-12s, where my heart lies. She listened to me witter on about why I’d written the book, and what it meant to me, and over the course of the hours I spent going in and out of her office periodically so she could stab me afresh, we got quite pally over the whole ‘book-writin” thing.

Reader, I felt accomplished. I actually felt interesting. And I learned that I can talk about my book, without hesitation or preparation or hitch, quite freely. It’s an interesting counterpoint to my PhD thesis, which I could never talk about without getting myself into a tangled mess and convincing myself, by the end of my speech, that my work was a load of old cobblers which would add nothing to the sum of human achievement. That was if I could get past the ‘Um. Well. Um. It’s sort of like – er. Well, it’s as if – okay. Right. Well, if you can imagine three imaginative worlds in medieval literature, right, um, like bubbles? Or maybe as fields on a Venn diagram? You know, overlapping?’ bit, which normally put most people to sleep. I used to put terrible pressure on myself, too, knowing all the way through my doctoral studies that at the end of the writing process I’d have to face an oral examination, during which I’d have to speak about my thesis for hours on end; that was almost enough to put me over the edge.

But I did manage it, just about. It took over three years of work, though. My book is easier to talk about, and I’m not sure why – it came from my soul, sure, but so did my thesis. My thesis was being examined, but so – in a way – is my book. My thesis brought me work, albeit temporary, but so will my book. They’re almost exactly the same, yet talking about my book is so much easier.

Perhaps if I’d had airships and derring-do and scary villains and marvellous machines in my PhD thesis I’d have found it easier to talk about – but that would’ve left very little magic left over to siphon into The Eye of the North. So, maybe all those years of stuttering about my thesis were worth it. The work I did then has led me, in a roundabout way, to where I am today – and where I am today, needles and uncertainty and stress aside, is a pretty good place.

And hopefully I’ll have the chance to talk about my book a lot more over the coming years, to lots of people, and hopefully (fingers crossed!) they’ll be as charmed to hear about it as my kind and patient phlebotomy nurse was yesterday. Meeting her was almost worth the pain.

(Almost).