Monday, 20 January 2014

The Writing Exercise That Got Away...

In most writing how to and course books, they get you writing a daily journal, be it the old Morning Pages idea (which never works for me, for multiple reasons[1]), or a place where you sort of therapeutize yourself and nick some of the imagistic results for your stories etc.  Late last year I decided this was a fun idea, to journal in addition to traditional writing exercises, so I began. 

The way it often goes, is you sort of personify the Journal, as if you are speaking to a part of yourself, or an idealised reader etc.  The 2 exercise books I was writing from encouraged me to try an Introduction to the Journal for myself, what I wanted it to do, plus writing an imaginary advert for a Journal Keeper – someone (of myself) who would see to it the Journal was regularly written in and kept safe.  Another bit of me would then reply (or several would, depending how prolific I felt or how much time on my hands…).  Then there’d be an interview, where I’d question and appoint the Journal Keeper.

All very (a) complicated and dumb sounding, or (b) imaginative and silly, but possibly interesting…well, either way, here you go.  Self indulgence or genuine writing exercise: you decide.  This is what I produced (when I probably should have been writing something more relevant, snicker; or alternatively, solving crime[2]…)
Introduction to Journal, dedication:

I name you Alchemy.  I am no Cornelius Agrippa.
I am no Eliphas Levi, no Aleister Crowley.
You are but a notebook pressed on with my pen.
No secret spell ripples you different.
No incantation makes you any other than just mine.
And yet:
You and I together will take –
Sand and make of them diamonds.
Insults and make of them insights.
Cries from the void and make of them flying in the darkness: free.
Joy will be captured and nodded at – not lost.
The world and all in it, will be larger and more clear.
Because you and I hold hands
And bend heads to paper: we can change.
Refashion. Resurrect.  We are magic.

Advertisement for Position of Journal Keeper:

Person needs to be able to:-

  • Instigate an immediate feeling of being calm enough to write.
  • Capable of thoroughgoing emotional honesty.
  • Take advantage of very short bursts of time and quickly get into a flow, producing something worthy of starting[3].
  • Shoot The Critic down incontrovertibly if he shows up. (This harks back to an exercise I did with the Dennis Palumbo book, where I personified my inner critic.  This has repurcussions, as you will see.)
  • Keep the Journal Writer coming back – remind the Journal Writer of the commitment needed and the rewards commensurate with doing this.


Greater than rubies.  By becoming the Journal Writer’s guardian, safe space, psychiatrist, confidante, and sister-or-brother-friend, you effectively have the power of the Gods. Use it well.

Location:  Live in, 24 hour availability.  Infectious energy.

Letter of Application from prospective Journal keeper/ Journal Guardian:

Dear JW,
I was drawn to apply for this position because I must admit, my ego jumped and leapt at hearing I would have the power of the Gods were I to fulfil my post correctly.

I want to tell you, straight up, that I am doggedly tenacious when I get into something.  And I rather like the idea of being named Alchemy.

I’m going to be honest here, and tell you that my own life has not been specifically marked by these qualities, causing action and palpable results.  I may, by own reckoning, be something of a coward.

But it occurred to me, reading your ad and being between jobs, that what I might be good at, is assisting someone else.  You see, it’s so much easier to defend, fortify, release or glorify (or some other nice big fat word) another than oneself.

I thought: to be all those things you list, to you – I can see myself doing that.  And in doing them, not only would I help you uncover strength you only hoped for, within yourself, but I might find it in myself too.

This is a highly unconventional application I know.  I have been guilty of slightly pompous and flowery language.  I’ve been reading lots of Victorian novels recently, sorry.  I understand if you receive better applications and choose not to see me.

But.  My own life has not been a success, in particular.  Nor a great failure.  More of a great…constraining of potential.  I know what NOT to do.  What to avoid.  And I know all about the support I would have wished to receive for myself.  I think I can give these things to you. To be your knight in shining armour (the Victorians were a bit obsessed with the whole Arthurian shebang, weren’t they?); or your wise fairy godmother.

By holding hands with you, I think we could both end up twice as tall.  For you, I would have the courage to slay dragons.

Yours, etc etc etc…


It’s a light and airy room, with hardly any furniture.  Three floors up. From the large open window, full daylight and blue skies can be seen. The sun shines with the light of midday.  Sounds of a children’s playground, that squawk squawking that carries on the wind can be heard, washing in and out depending on the soft breeze.

There’s a strong smell of hyacinths.  Its late spring, and it feels like early summer.  Fresh. Possible.  The white walls echo the light, clean and empty, calming.

I sit in the only armchair in the room, listening to the ticking of the anonymous clock on the wall above the window.  I dragged the chair across the room so that it was strongly in the sunlight.  Its velvet covered, old.  Has a soft worn feel and smells musty, ever so slightly of frankincense; as if the last place it lived was incongruously a Catholic Church.

I wait for the time of 12.15p.m.  Re-reading that weird letter again, I worry that I’m about to interview a stalker.  A mental patient.  But the combined honesty of this applicant and their lack of accepted job jargon, made her impossible to ignore.

At exactly 12.15 I hear someone coming.  What I hear is a confident step that falters outside the room, and then softly sidles in. 

I look up.

In the doorway is a shock.  This person looks exactly – no – considerably is fairer, like someone else I know.  The Critic.  They could be related.

Instead of greeting this person, I am aware I stare instead.  Then say: “Are you related to The Critic?  At all?”

The woman takes off her hat, an old trilby in beige.  It’s seen better days, as has her raincoat.  She regards me.  With those same pale eyes, that same steady stare.  She stands just inside the doorway and shrugs out of the thin raincoat.  It has a tired navy blue lining.  Navy blue is my least liked colour, ever.  It doesn’t have the happiness of sky blue, or any other shade of blue.  It doesn’t have the confidence to just get on with it and be black.  It doesn’t go with anything.   It doesn’t even contrast; just clash.  When I see navy blue, what I see is sensible shoes blending in, hiding behind ideas of efficiency and businesslikeness.  In reality, to me, a navy blue person is no person at all.  They are a background.  Boring and bland. 

I realise that I am still staring, that she has not yet spoken.  And that I am judging her based on my personal prejudices alone…and on her raincoat lining.  However, the rest of her clothes (and who says they make no difference? They are cues, like all we see – signifiers; and specially, coming to an interview, they are vital)…she wears a plain white blouse, perfectly starched, no added detail whatsoever. Navy blue work slacks and a pair of 80s flat brogues.  For a moment, my eyes blur a little, and she becomes a he, and also wears the world’s most boring plain maroon tie.  He is thicker round the chest though still thin.

Either way, whoever they are, the hair is short, and pale pale blonde, almost honey blonde, creamy set honey.

I am not taken with what I see at all.  I can’t help feeling all this blending conformity is stretching out to me and trying to smooth over my brain, to amplify my placid tendencies.  I practically want to take a nap looking at this applicant.  What I see is completely at odds with what I read.  This person wouldn’t have the energy to stalk a snail.  I am about to tell her the interview is over, that’s it, when she finally says something.

She stands there, holding her hat between thin nervous fingers.  Not covered in thick silver rings as his fingers are.  Not active like him.  “The Critic is my father.  I look very much like him, I know.”

Her stare is strange.  She looks directly at me.  Once she speaks, she has more solidity than before.  Her molecules come together in a rush and she is finally present.  She pulls out the plain wooden chair and positions herself in the traditional way; on the other side of the small table from me.  The hat goes in her lap and she holds the brim calmly but tightly, puts her knees together.

“I didn’t think you’d see me if I mentioned that in the letter.  I can see it bothers you.  I can see that even how I dress bothers you.  But I am not him.  So please, try to hear me as someone else, someone you haven’t met before.”

I am a little bit gobsmacked.  I turn to the clear jug next to me on the table.  (There’s every possibility it wasn’t actually there a minute ago.)  It’s full of dark and cloudy apple juice.  From a farm that’s just over the hill, out of view, out of the window.  If you listen, over the birdsong and children still playing, you can hear the low mooing of faraway cows.

Quite obviously playing for time, and trying to think through my own reactions and what she has said, I pour us both a squat tumbler of juice. Its wonderfully cold and fat in my hands, thick and full of presence at its base. I put one infront of her. 

“Thankyou.” She says, nodding slightly.

I turn to her and try to read her face as she sips and isn’t looking at me.  Try to not see him, the person who has interfered with my life possibly more than anyone else. Messing with my mind and wasting my opportunities.  I might have learned to stand up to him (“go and do some knitting”, indeed!) – But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done me harm.  And could still, when I am low.  And I can’t be strong and brave all the time.

“ – which is why you could hire me for this job.” She cuts in smoothly, putting the juice down.

I raise my eyebrows at her.

“I know the work my father does.  He did it to me.  I moved out a long time ago, but I didn’t realise I took him with me.  I’d listened to him for so long that he had his own room in my head. He could wander in and out at will.  Running his finger along dusty bookshelves, picking up half finished stories or paintings or songs I had written.  Sometimes he wouldn’t even speak.  He just made a face and put something down again.  Or just glance at them and not pick them up at all.  It wasn’t even that he criticised.  It was that he never praised.  Not for doing well, not for trying, not for anything.  I have never had a mother.  He would never answer any of my questions about her.  So all I had was him.  And he was never proud of me.  My metronome was him.  Marking out apathy.  Or just cutting remarks.  If anyone can help you write more or better or more often – without interruption and that damn fear: its me.  Because I know your enemy like the back of my hand. See, clichés are there for a reason  – use if accurate,” she adds, as an afterthought.

She has been very still and calm during this long explanation.  I am a bit overwhelmed.

“When did you leave?”  I ask.

“When I was 16.  As soon as I legally could.”  Her eyes are on me, and I’m less worried by her now.  I see that in her hair is a very small clip, a sparkly butterfly, silver and coloured glass.  As she nods it catches the sun and the wings seem to move, just slightly.

“Do you still see him, talk to him?” I ask gently.

“You know what he’s like.  He visits whenever he wants.  Always when it’s least welcome.”

“Hmm, that he does.”

“I heard you stood up to him the other day.  For the first time ever.  Congratulations.  You completely wrong footed him.”

We share a rather triumphant smile.

“He has a new hobby,” she winks at me.

I clap my hands.  “Really?!  He knitted something?”

She smiles back and it makes her face a different one altogether.  She’s in that moment entirely her own woman, mature, about 45, and there’s life behind her, life before her.  She is in the circle, spinning and serene.  She catches the sun.

“He made booties.” She says, surprise in her voice.  “He did it very badly, and he put them in a drawer afterwards and he hasn’t had them out since.”

“Baby booties?”  I feel a slight worrying frisson.  “He didn’t start with something simple, and he doesn’t have a baby, right?”

“No, he doesn’t,” she agrees.  “I was mystified too.  But I didn’t ask.  You know how hard it is when you start something new and it doesn’t go right.  I didn’t want to…”

“Hurt his feelings by saying anything?”

“Mmmm.” She says, as if as surprised as I am by this notion.

“Compassion?  After all he’s done to us, you gave him compassion?” I clarify.

“Yes.” She puts up her hands, palms flat out.  “Don’t ask me why.  I just…I’ve been there, so…his face…I couldn’t say anything.  The stitches were all big and floppy.  You could tell he was going to have to sew bits of it up to hold it all together.  Or just unpick it and do it again.  They were a mess.”  She says this last quietly, as if he’s here, he might hear.

I feel a creeping respect for her.  She sits there, hiding in her beige and white and navy blue, and outdated shoes. And yet she is somehow more whole than she should be, despite a lifetime of criticism.  Her back is straight, eyes calm, hands still.  She has a measure of peace: a bit of herself hidden away from what must have been a very unpleasant environment.

“Have you ever stood up to him?”  I ask.

“When I left.  He didn’t want me to go. Said I was a whore, obviously off to play at my hormones with a boy.”

“Did you leave for a boy?”  I am always nosy.

“Yes.  I didn’t have a reason I understood till the boy.  And then I did, and it made me feel braver.”

“I see.  Ok…”  I feel this interview has gotten right away from me.  I try and steer it back. “You’d have to come and live with me, you know that?”

“That’s fine.”  She fingers the butterfly clip, which has slipped slightly.  “I’m not living with anyone right now, it’s just me.  Rented.  I can go.”

“And I might need you anytime.  You’d have to stop what you were doing and come and help me?”

“I learned a long time ago how to switch on and off from tasks,” she says.  She’s warm from sitting in the sun; her face has a bit of a blush on it now.  She looks way better, undoes her top shirt button.  “It would be an honour to look after you.  To try to,” she concedes.

I look at the clock. 1.20 p.m.  An hour has passed. Where did that go?

She’s finished her juice.  “Can I have another one please?” she gestures her hand at the jug.  “I don’t usually talk so much.  Thirsty.”  As she holds out her glass and I pour, I see a tiny tattoo on her inner right wrist as the sleeve rides up.  It’s a perfectly rendered Daisy.

“Gosh, that’s pretty,” I point, always a sucker for what I see as the intense courage of anyone who’s suffered the pain of a tattoo.  “You’re brave!”

“Me?”  She looks at her wrist.  “I was drunk, was the only way I could get myself in there!”

We laugh.

“Still brave! And really cute.”

She looks at it, as though she’d forgotten it for a long time and is only just now reassessing it.  “It’s a symbol,” she says.

“Of what?”

“He always tried to define me.  To nothing, to dust, to inertia.  When I left I wanted to do something he’d never do.  Be separate, be me.”

“He disapproves of body art?”

“He disapproves of individuality.” She answers.

“Oh.  Yes, of course.”

In that moment I realise I know all I need to.  And can take a chance.

“You’d really slay dragons?” I smile at her.

She colours a bit more.  “That was a bit over the top wasn’t it?”

“A bit, but I got the point.”

“Yes I would.”

“Right then.”

I extend my hand over the table to her.  She takes it hesitantly.

“You’re hired.”  I say, feeling a bit odd.  I’ve never been a boss before.

We chat a little, and she starts to get ready to leave.  We arrange that’s she’ll move into the spare room in the attic tomorrow.

As we part, I spontaneously give her a hug.  She smells of outside, of meadows.

I pull back and realise I’ve left out something huge.

“I don’t know your name!”

She points at her wrist.  “I’ve changed my name.  Now I’m Daisy.”

When she puts on the trilby, it doesn’t seem battered or old anymore.  It seems jaunty and brave.  It suits her.

After she has left, I watch her walk away over the hill, from the window.

She takes off her raincoat, holds it over one arm and rolls up her sleeves.  Impossibly, strapped to her side, how could I not see it before?, is a large silver broadsword.

The chick was armed!

Daisy Defender.

I sip juice, feel the sun on my face, and watch as she passes out of my view for now, and away.

[1] Which are: I get very little sleep at night and absolutely no peace first thing in the morning.  The chances of me getting up earlier to write crap, after a night where I was up 4 or 5 times with Fluffhead anyway, are remote to zero.  Also, letting my brain just talk first thing in the morning, which is my most hairline trigger time of day (because I am very tired and at a low ebb) can prompt a massive downward spiral that can ruin a day or much longer.  Self reflection at this time is NOT a good thing for me; the random thoughts that come out are mostly sad, angry or just plain nihilistic.  Evening Pages used to work better for me, as my brain used to start kicking in and roaming free after the days obligations were starting to wind down.  Again, with the troubled nights I have and little space at this time for writing, I’m currently unlikely to do them.  In fact: this idea does not work with my life at all, despite its fanatical devotion by people for whom it does the trick.  Just thought I’d state that, in case there’s anyone else out there bullied by the tyrannous ideal of Morning Pages as a psychological writing tool…
[2] Yes, my Criminal Minds obsession is still ongoing.  I’m up to Season 7 now, which is very slow for me.  This is because I got distracted by both The Mentalist and Castle.  I suddenly felt the urge to solve lighter crime as well as heavy crime.  And was very happy to discover the lovely similarities between Remington Steele and Castle. In that whilst both can be wondrous light and jokey, they were also capable of a full emotional palette when it came to the crimes: both have had me in tears, sap that I am.  The Mentalist is a weird one.  The supporting cast make it, oddly.  The lead character is played so lightly and ambiguously, and against grain for his backstory that he remains almost too sketchy to identify with.  Plus he doesn’t do quite enough mentalist tricks to keep me as engaged as I could be…but then, I’m only up to season 2 on this one, we’ll wait and see.
[3] Shoot me now, if I EVER use the phrase: ‘hit the ground running’.  Argghhhhh.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Of Much Wiffling And Signifying Very Little Other Than Thinking Aloud

Ah, 2014.  And I greet it as tired, bleary eyed and secretly hopeful as any other year.  I say secretly because I only just realised I felt a bit hopeful; and it flies in the face of a few actual developments in life.  On the other hand, things being about 60% what you choose to think about them/ focus on/ make of them…it could all be way worse, and therefore I shall right this instant say that so far, all goeth, y’know, ok-ish…(and that’s as much deviation to positive thought from actual reality I will give you!).

The Prince has moved out into his sparkly new flat near his work.  My book room is denuded of other people’s bags of alien possessions.  He also did me the grand favour of borrowing a large beanbag Stanley bought me for Christmas the year before, but which turned out to have nowhere to live in the entire house, so ended up sitting there in a massive box on the side of my book room, irritating me beyond patience with the amount of space its taking up.  Now, if I get my arse to hoovering, I can do yoga on the floor again.  Just as Stanley and I thought we could start wandering about naked again, groping on the sofa in small snatched moments or generally picking our noses wherever, it seems the house may not be empty of guest for long.  Not 24 hours after The Prince had left the building, we had a distress call from Another.  We'll see what happens.

Not so small Fluffhead is happy to be back at nursery – he didn’t really get the concept of Christmas holiday; I think he simply thought we were meanly withholding his friends from him for no apparent reason, and only presents distracted him from this.  But now he comes home daily covered with Pritt stick and glitter paint again, and is very happy.  (I wonder how long it will take him to get his next dripping 10 week cold…?!)  He also accrued 3 new words in 3 days flat: more, four and door.  Which is definitely a good start to the year for him.  He'll be four at the end of the month, too.

In a return to routine, to a degree, Time Traveller and I yesterday haunted Coffeehouse.  I waffled on something chronic about my problems and asked her opinion, and she listened with all the intensity and kind wisdom I generally associate with her, before pronouncing: ‘that’s a tough one, conflicted.’  We sat thoughtfully for a moment in silence, before I waffled on again.  She always thinks she’s the waffler, hogging the conversation; but its not so.  I don’t think either of us does.  We both don’t seem to mind listening, and we’re both nosy, as writerly types are.  It occurs to me I could do such a good character study and story from things going on right now around me – which I don’t mean to be vague about, here…but that’s the point:   I’m not one of those writers (yet, anyway) who will steal wholesale their friends and family and stuff them in a story and stick it right out there, whilst said people are still going through all their most interesting trauma that I have nosed out of them while I counsel them.  This may make me a failed writer; possibly it makes me an ok human being?!  It’s annoying though, I have at least 2 magnificently rounded characters (that is to say: real people I have unintentionally studied in depth; and I don’t want to disguise or fictionalise them so I can use them now, I sort of want to leave them as they are, they are just wondrous fascinating already, as people and characters).  Time Traveller is doing way better than me with her writing, at which I am most pleased and dead envious – but mostly pleased (which is uncharacteristically charitable of me, I note), as she is such a good writer I wouldn’t want anything to interfere with her flow.

I look out the window at the garden, battered and waterlogged from days on and off of rain and wind, and I wonder if the storm of 2013 is slowing and calming, or if this is just a lull.  Like I said, I am starting to get a slight feeling of spaciousness, extremely cautious optimism.  I’m starting to engage with the feel of the season.  I saw a small fox in the garden this morning; another yesterday morning, running fast away from me, all dark orange and paddy feet and scared eyes.  I really like foxes (despite the gross poo they keep kindly leaving me in the garden – I’m always having to run about and do Poo Search before Fluffhead can barrel out and charge over the grass, as there’s always some and I don’t want him stepping in it and slipping and bringing it back in the house).

I still have a cough from a cold I got at the end of November.  Which is most irritating.  It comes and goes.  Days it’s gone, almost a week sometimes, and I imagine that’s that and I’m better, then it tickles and there’s chestiness again and IRRITATION, its back.  In this spirit, I give you this cough syrup remedy.  It definitely does quell the tickling (for a short time), and annoyingly tastes so nice you may want to keep drinking it for pleasure, which means there won’t be much left …if you don’t, and just take a couple of teaspoons here and there, it’ll last a week in the fridge.  I didn’t invent this one, Kate West did, see footnote for reference:


  • Take the juice of 1 orange and 2 lemons,
  • 2 tablespoons of glycerine (from your chemist),
  • 2 tablespoons of honey (locally made is best),
  • ½ a crushed cinnamon stick,
  • 6 cloves,
  • a large pinch of grated nutmeg,
  • and ½ a teaspoon of grated ginger. 
  • Heat gently for 10-20 minutes, stirring all the time.  Do not allow to boil. 
  • Strain and place in a clean jar to cool. 
  • Children as young as 5 can have this – but their dose should be diluted with 3 times as much water[1].

I also made up some seasonal room and body mist, and some bath salts.  I like to feel like I smell like the parts of the natural world I like (for instance, no plans to smell like seasonal fox poo anytime soon) – since I spend so much time indoors in front of screens or just generally pacing up and down while Fluffhead does stuff; this makes me feel more connected to the larger blowier colder wetter (currently) outside world.  In a partial and romanticised way of course (but that’s all focus is: editing, picking what you choose to look at and using it to make you feel good/ better/ however.  That thought apropos of nothing.)

I was wondering if I should do a sort of look ahead thing, about what sort of posts I plan to do this year.  Then I realized that whilst I have a tiny tiny cautious feeling of possibility, I’m still pretty directionless, and feeling my way.  All I can actually promise, is a continuation of whatever series I’m already doing.  So there’ll be more reviews of Dr Who books (which will incite bored weeping and happy cheers from various people I know, respectively).  Probably more herbs posts.  Probably reviews of other books and TV or film I’m watching, specially if I get addicted to something.  There’ll likely be some posts about art or writers, I’m planning to get out more and go to some exhibitions and bring you back my one sided impressions.  There’ll be some guest posts, and maybe another Season of Love, we’ll see.  I realize I haven’t done a Things That Irritate Me post for almost a year.  Which is amusing, as plenty of things have annoyed the hell out of me – but whilst stress makes me shouty and a bit argumentative, I haven’t actually felt like laying out my precise thought case for any of these things.  Maybe I will this year; maybe I won’t.  Maybe I’ll start a Things That Give Me Joy series too – there’s definitely plenty of those, also.  Other than that…its whatever takes my fancy and engages my brain…and failing that, posts like this, Of Much Wiffling And Signifying Very Little Other Than Thinking Aloud In A Disorganised Way. 

Happy New Year.  Be well, and May The Force Be With You.

[1] The Real Witches Year, by Kate West (Minnesota: Llewellyn, 2008), p.4.  This is the second imprint of her book; despite the American publisher, the first imprint was an English publisher over here, and all her recipes etc are given in English measurements as she’s English.