Writing Wednesday:  10 Things I Have Learnt From My Secret Project’s First Draft

My Secret Project (a.k.a. the novel I am writing) has been an eye-opening experience. I had written two attempts at novels previously – the first being more of an elongated and very boring short story, and the second a witty but shallow piece that I could never face editing. This third attempt, though, has real potential. And that is exciting and scary in equal measure.

But things I have learnt from this writing process:

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A Place to Belong

All I ever wanted was a place to belong.

It sounds stupid really, to want a place to belong. I mean, I have a family. I have excelled at school, and then (much) later, at university. I’ve done things, helped people, but all along, all I ever wanted was to belong. To be accepted, loved, embraced. Even when I made mistakes. It’s one of the reasons I became so good at hospitality.

All I ever wanted was a place to belong. There were moments, when I was part of a group of kids’ church leaders, that I thought I belonged – and some of those relationships persist (albeit long-distance) to this day. But for the most part, I have stuck out like a sore thumb. Throbbing, awkward. And very aware of the discomfort I cause.

It’s difficult to admit. We are social beings, and to admit to not belonging is to admit to failure. I’m a South African living in North East England. The cultural divide makes the Grand Canyon look like a farmer’s furrow. I don’t know how to breach it.

I thought when I became a mother, it would entitle me to membership of the motherhood club – play dates and after school clubs and chatting at the school gates. I know about those things, because I experienced them as a nanny in London. Or I watched them, since I wasn’t actually a mother. But Little Person is atypical in her development. After school clubs are rare. Play dates awkward. School gate chats almost non-existent. One of the most isolating experiences in my life is the knowledge that half the time, I do not understand what my child is trying to tell me. So watching other mothers with their children only increases my awareness of the differences between my child and theirs. (Yes, I know. I’m not supposed to compare. I’m also not supposed to walk this road alone, but there you go.)

I thought, since I had felt a certain sense of belonging at certain churches in South Africa, I would at least be accepted in churches over here. No. Hell, no. That’s what has put paid to any decent writing over the last month or so. How to put in words, when the place you thought you belonged turns around and tells you, in not so many words, you’re not worth the effort? Of course, I can’t write about it, because to admit the problem is to be judgemental, and that is not allowed.

I have my family. The Dude, and Little Person. And even Little Cat, who sleeps on the end of my bed and nominates herself as my alarm clock. But being mother, and wife, and cook, and laundry-fixer and shopping guru makes it all a muddle. It’s a place to belong, but the moments to appreciate it can be fleeting. That’s the struggle when the rest of the family lives so far away.

All I ever wanted was a place to belong. And then I realised, it’s write under my nose. I can write my belonging, if I’m brave enough.

It’s who I was always meant to be.

Meowthpiece 5: Butterflies Are Not Cat Toys

Little Cat has been enjoying the sunshine. She’s been running around pretending that being all black makes her invisible in daylight. There have been no new mice coming inside (although last night she had us convinced – cue a furniture shuffle just before bed). An awful lot of activity, and only once have I seen the Ear Twitch of Annoyance.

If you own a cat, you know what I’m talking about. Something does not go to plan and the cat sits, looks at offending situation, and a single ear twitches, before the cat pads away as though nothing could ever go wrong. “I would be annoyed but that is so beneath me.”

Yesterday, Little Cat was inspecting the gravel by the back door. I was sitting on the step, contemplating my obligation not to spend the entire day sitting on the back door step in the sun (not really, I wasn’t thinking anything). Little Cat noticed a butterfly on the grass a good few metres away. Without hesitation, she was off.

The butterfly, of course, waited until the very moment she lifted her paw, and fluttered nonchalantly away. Cue Ear Twitch of Annoyance. Butterflies are not cat toys. They do not flick to catch our attention and then wait obediently to be caught. They are not predictable. You want to catch a butterfly? You have to earn it.

But even if Little Cat didn’t catch that butterfly, I know it’s just a matter of time. She’s a little rusty on her hunting skills. Dare I say the cat toys have made her lazy? Still, the interesting thing is that after months of demanding cat toy play every evening, now she is just happy to snooze.

When there’s real hunting to be had, cat toys don’t get a look in.

Love in The Shadowlands

Shadowlands. We all have them – the paths we’ve walked that we wished we hadn’t, decisions we have made that are now tinged with regret, maybe even parts of ourselves that we wish just weren’t. Sadness, pity, hopelessness, despair, neglect, doom, pain, anguish, wretchedness. Shadowlands.

It is easy to think that the point of life is to pretend the Shadowlands don’t exist. To live as far away as possible. To be bright, and sparkly, with full tummies and warm beds, and a holiday twice a year. Familes that are well behaved, friends that think we are fabulous. That’s the dream, isn’t it? A life far from the Shadowlands.

I live close to the Shadowlands. I suspect many creative people do. I look at the people in the happy places, with their happy jewellery glinting in the sun and sometimes, it just hurts my eyes. Too loud. Too much. Too hard to tell if it’s real or just a game.

When I look to the Shadowlands, my eyes may ache from peering into places that are difficult to see, but ultimately, it’s not my eyes that hurt. It’s my heart. I see people struggling, and alone, and dealing with very difficult problems. Addiction. Depression. Fear. Financial pressure. Relational pressure. Hopelessness. I see little things made big, and big people made little. So I go there as I often as I can.

I would hope that I should stop and visit every time I see the Shadowlands in somebody. Give them the gift of my time, my shoulder to cry on, the knowledge that somehow, they are not alone. Because I know the difference it makes. But of course, I don’t do it often enough. I walk past people everyday who carry the shadows silently, hidden. I cannot see, because we don’t talk about the Shadowlands.

Because there are other things to be found in the Shadowlands. How can you know the joy of forgiveness, if you have never felt the pain of regret? For ever wound, there may be healing. For every despair, there is a hope. For every pain, there is a joy. If we can find it, if we can share it. If we dare to love, and care enough to make a difference.

The people in the Shadowlands are us – unmasked, unprotected, ashamed. We are no better, no more worthy. We just look like we have our act together. Those is the Shadowlands don’t need our judgement. Sometimes, they don’t even need our help. But they (we) always, always, need our love.

Love in the Shadowlands. It’s a beautiful thing.


Meowthpiece 4: The Cat and The Camera

I have a confession to make: I have more photos on my phone of my cat than I have of Little Person and The Dude, combined. I can explain, honest.

The Dude doesn’t like having his photo taken (he’s a photographer – he likes to be on the other side of the lens). Little Person likes videos rather than photos and she’s reaching that stage where she wants to be taking the photos instead of being in them, too. (Are photography genes a thing?)

So that leaves Little Cat. Or Slightly Tubby Cat, as she has become. But she’s got that dense black fur that absorbs all the light so that sometimes when you photograph her it becomes a pool darkness surrounded by interesting objects. (If by interesting objects you mean yarn fluff and mismatched socks.) Plus she has a skittish personality, and her anxiety built up by sharing a house with another cat for 6 (7?) years is still receding. She jumps and hides at the slightest disturbance. Like somebody walking in the room. Or a camera click.

So part of the zillion photos on my phone has been training her to get used to the camera click so that it doesn’t make her jump up and run away. Plus I’m really not particularly good at photography, but I like pictures of cats and I figure between random chance and practice, I might occasionally get a half decent one. (A girl can dream.)

And I know the training is working. Little Cat – or Slightly Tubby Cat, as I should rename her – has become a camera-ready cat, apart from the awkwardness (or photographically challenge) of her dense black fur. How do I know this? The Dude walked into the study one afternoon, and she was perched on the top of the chair waiting to pounce on unsuspecting computer users. The light was perfect. Making her fur gleam and shine. He pulled out his phone, she looked right at him and click. He took a really cool picture of the cat.

So now The Dude has one picture of Little Cat on his phone, and it is better than any of the zillions on mine.

But then it just takes one. (And a wife daft enough to camera train your skittish cat.)

(photo credit @cnicholl33, used with permission.)

Writing Wednesday: How Writing a Blog is Different From Writing a Novel

I can hear you now, tutting at your screen. Of course writing a blog is different to writing a novel.

For one thing, when you stop writing your blog, everybody sees you falling into the abyss, but when you stop writing your novel, you can quietly shove the unfinished manuscript under the bed. Nobody’s watching. (Unless you’re famous. But I’m not famous.)

But the differences are more substantive than that. Given that as my novel gathers steam, I find it more and more difficult to switch from one format to the other (which may explain the recent paucity of posts), I thought I might explore some of the underlying reasons. And yes, I put my psychology hat on for just a little bit.

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The Complicated and Awkward Relationship Between Passion And Ownership

Okay, maybe that title is a little misleading. For the most part, the relationship between passion and ownership is fairly straightforward. If you are passionate about something (be it an object or something  a little more abstract), and the opportunity arises, you take ownership of that thing. Like me and writing, The Dude and computer games/rugby/sci-fi movies, Little Person and painting.

We bought her one of those fairly cheap easels from Ikea last week. It was something we had meant to do for a while, knowing that she enjoys painting and drawing and such like, but we had always found reasons not to do it. (What if scenarios involving mess, tantrums and such like, as well as more practical concerns like where would we put it.) Turns out we had underestimated her passion for painting.

There has been very little mess. There has been no tantrums. There has been no Mummy-I-don’t-want-to-clean-up-you-do-it. There’s not even been a problem when she made a mistake with her painting. She knows that it’s her easel, and her paints, and she needs to keep it tidy. She has taken ownership of the opportunity. And yes, she has used the opportunity to paint some of her toys as well. But who wouldn’t? Allowing Little Person the space to express her passion, and take ownership of it, has made parenting her that much easier.

Of course, the pathway between passion and ownership is not always as simple as somebody putting an easel up in your bedroom so you can paint. Sometimes the passion burns without an outlet. And you want to create an outlet, but that seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Sometimes you have to take ownership of the thing, without the least amount of passion for it. What to do when you are given an easel, and you don’t like painting?

You could turn it into a signpost (“My name is Bob and I don’t like Easels”). You could get another one and use them as the legs for a trestle table. You could put it in the cupboard to collect dust, or give it to somebody who says they like easels. Or you could let it be known that you have the easel, and some paints, and if anyone wants to have a go at painting, they are more than welcome to try. Help other people find and/or express their passion in a safe environment.

If your ownership and your passion don’t match up, get creative. Find different ways to express your passion, and different ways to use whatever you have ownership of. Neither passion nor ownership are your entire identity, anymore than painting is all that Little Person is about.

It’s just that when both are pulling in the same direction, sometimes beautiful things can happen.

Lessons From a Castle Adventure

The castle walls were imposing, even from a distance. But a ticket could get you through. (And in days of old, wearing the right badge would get you through too). The fountains were impressive – but they only made you wet if you got too close. Which Little Person thought was hilarious. The carefully crafted hedgerow that created a little contemplative secret garden space was charming, but as a boundary it was an illusion. You could just walk through the gaps in the hedge. (Actually, that was kind of the point.)

We spent a day at Alnwick Gardens and Castle recently (which I would highly recommend, btw). The gardens were beautiful and interesting, despite it only being early spring. The Dude took photographs, Little Person explored, and I watched the whole thing unfold, astonished not just at the beauty of the place, but the beauty of the moment. So much so, that it was only later that I started thinking.

We went into the castle (after a brief pitstop for chocolate ice-cream. Because, chocolate ice-cream). We saw the big castle walls (and later climbed one of them), and then it was into the central courtyard, and into the State Rooms. Alnwick Castle is fairly unusual in that it remains in everyday use by the family that own it. And you can feel it as you climb the stairs. They watch television in the library on an evening, and then at 10:00AM the room is opened to the general public to gawk at the beautiful collection of artwork.

And after all the boundaries – the walls, and doorways and gates and towers and staircases, it is a little red rope, and a man with a lanyard hanging from his neck that keeps the treasures safe (and the hidden alarm system, I’m sure).

It’s not the big castle walls that keep us safe. (Although they can keep us hidden). It’s not the pretty hedgerows (although they also can keep us hidden). It’s the little red rope that says you may look, but you may not touch. Keeping things hidden doesn’t always keep them safe. Guarding them in plain sight can prove just as effective. Plus, you get to share the joy. If you know what I mean.

But then again, they didn’t put the whole castle on show, so maybe there’s a lesson in that too.

Put the right boundaries in the right places – hedgerows give you space to think, red rope lets your treasure shine, and castle walls, well they keep the private things private.

And fountains? Fountains are just for fun.

It All Goes On The Page (A Writing Wednesdays Post)

Okay, I admit. Writing Wednesdays is not an actual thing (apart from the obvious fact that I write on Wednesdays, but I also write on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Sometimes even on the weekend).  But it should be a thing. I’m not promising you that every Wednesday I will write about writing, I’m just saying I might. (I said that about cats and Fridays, and it seems to be working okay, sort of.)

One of the first books I ever read about writing was Julia Cameron’s The Right To Write. I don’t go in for her Morning Pages routine mainly because I have a child to get to school. But I do know she is right about one thing. Everything always ends up on the page. It’s just that sometimes we let fear get in the way.  Fear was one of the main things that prevented me from taking my writing seriously.

Fear that I would fail.

Fear that I would succeed.

Fear that the journey would break me.

Fear that nobody would read what I wrote.

Fear that everybody would read what I wrote and tell me I was wrong/stupid/right.

Letting go of the fear is letting go of other people’s opinions’ of you. Not letting go in a Frozen-esque way (that wasn’t letting go, that was running away. Big difference). It’s more like walking into the water and lifting your feet so that the current can take you on an adventure.

The opposite of fear is not bravery, it is trust.

Trusting your heart.

Trusting your voice.

Trusting your story.

Everything ends up on the page, but if you trust yourself, you will find that process of “onto the page”-ing that much easier. Let go of the anxiety. Lift your feet, and let the words take you.

I Ain’t Gonna Be Your Wonderbra, Sister

Before I start, I will point out I’m not one of those Nice Christian Girls. Never have been. I believe in talking about awkward thing like anti-depressants, and sex, and pain. When I read my Bible, I see a Jesus that loved people so much he called his best friends cowards. (I also see a Jesus that would willingly address difficult questions if the person asking was genuinely searching.)

The other day I was scrolling through my Instagram, which is filled with pictures and inspiring quotes from Nice Christian Girls, when I came upon an exchange that looked a bit like this:

Person A (well respected Nice Christian Girl. She has a book and everything.): Here’s a picture of so-and-so, encouraging us as women to be each other’s Wonderbra – supporting and lifting each other to look good. (or something like that.)

Person B (random person, about five comments down): Oh we have much more important things to worry about than that. If Jesus would let me be offended, that would have done it. (Translation: That’s really offensive, but nice Christian girls like me don’t get offended. We are too busy worrying about important stuff.)

Sometimes I look at things like this and just sigh and shake my head. This particular exchange had me going “Really?” in a state of bemused frustration. Nice Christian things provoke this response on occasion.

Because mentioning unmentionables should not be offensive. If you can’t talk about underwear, how can you talk about abuse, neglect, pornography, addiction, sexuality, or any number of other important issues?

So I’m not offended by the use of a Wonderbra metaphor. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to be your Wonderbra. Not because it’s underwear (underwear is all about hidden support, and we all need asome of that from time to time), but because it’s Wonderbra. Pushing and squeezing whatever you have to make it look like you have something else. Something more, or something different. Something everybody else tells you that you should have.

And I am not for that. I am not for telling people that they must should look good, or do good. Because looking good and doing good, is all about appearances. And encouraging people to put up appearances may (possibly) be as bad as judging them for it.

Encouragement is not about looking good (although it can be). It’s not about doing good (although it can be that, too). Encouragement is about accepting somebody’s today, and having faith in their tomorrow. Encouragement is about relationships, and time.

Wonderbrament says you need to fit these criteria, you need to make yourself look like this. Encouragement says, it’s okay if you don’t fit the mould. Not everyone was made for Wonderbra’s.

The look-good-do-good brand asphyxiates the broken. It encourages us to hide our brokenness, our pain, our trauma, behind happy smiles and good deeds. We grab our masks to face the world, because that is what we have to do. That is the only way we can look good.

We grab our masks, and we are blinded. To our purpose, to our potential, to the hurting hearts hiding behind the masks that do good alongside us.

No, I won’t be your Wonderbra. You don’t need one. You are not the way you look, or the things you do. You are so much more than that. And you always will be.

Just don’t tell the Nice Christian Girls I said that. They may get antsy.