How long should grief last?

[Written on 26 July]

It’s three years today since my mother died, joining my father in death and  leaving my brothers and I alone, and me the oldest in the family as well as the matriarch. That came a hell of a realisation, I can tell you.  

My mother planned to live until she was in her nineties. But I knew this was unlikely.

Deeply suspicious of the medical establishment, and rightly so given her woeful treatment by male gynaecologists who happily stole her fertility and thrust her into early menopause, she refused to deal with them.

Then when she was forced to, she trusted another male doctor who once again let her down, ironically because he gave her what he thought she wanted even though it meant an earlier than necessary death, which I know she did not want at all. But would he listen? No. He would look at me like some interfering busy body as she told to him time and again the lies she told herself.

But that’s all in the past. What is it that I miss about her today, a day of many challenges?

Perhaps I miss that I have no one and nowhere to go to.  

Not that my mother ever understood me or my problems, or was someone I could easily turn to. I could in theory, but in reality I whenever I tried I found myself feeling more alone than ever, more unrecognised with every attempt. 

I don’t blame my mother for her remoteness. Abandoned by her father in her teens in the worst kind of way, reviled by a jealous and competitive mother, and a survivor of all sorts of childhood travesties including during World War II, she didn’t let that overcome her. Instead she immigrated, had a family and created her dream of being a psychologist. 

I admire and respect that and am filled with awe for her.

She could have been a bitter and angry person, she could have inflicted upon us what was done to her. But she wasn’t and she didn’t. She chose to help people. But with me, we were forever ships in the other’s night, reaching out but finding the other too far away to grab hold of. I could not find her being behind her mask of survival and control. 

Perhaps what I miss today – and what I’ve continued to struggle to come to terms with these three years – is what we were not and what we can now never be. Her once soft belly and warm full breast of the mother of my dreams would never be realised. All those times I called her up and fell mute when she failed to hear me. That time, days before her death, when I cried into the phone that I never truly felt her love other than as some intellectual exercise. Finally she convinced me it was there, and for some moments it finally was laid bare.

Right now I would settle for even for five minutes of the frustration with her. I would get in my car to be with her, a person who despite it all, welcomed me no matter what. 

So perhaps what I really miss is not just her strangled kind of love, but that her death has forced me to grow up. Perhaps I miss being a child. Her death has indeed forced me to be alone at a time when I could very much do with an escape. 

And there it is. There is no escape. There is only, and has only ever been, me. And that is the greatest realisation and hurt right there. That she dared to leave me. That she could never rescue me. That I am alone, just as I always was. And neither she nor anyone was ever going to be able to allay that truth. 

Maybe there is a part of me too that regrets those struggles we had, who wished I wasn’t so busy with my life during her middle years, who wished I had been more generous with my time and made my mother more welcome, who was less driven mad by her incessant self talk.

Perhaps there is part of me also who, with time, has imagined she could have been different, that she could have changed. But the truth is that no matter how hard I tried, she was never going to be different. She could never step into that hopeful void I made for her to step into. 

So as much as all of that, and in the very end, I simply miss my mother. Bravo, mother. Bravo. I love and miss you no matter it all. 

Do your words convey your intent?

Ann Patchett’s quote is only too true. That said, it’s during my many (and I mean many) edits that I attempt to unearth the words I hope will go some way towards evoking the feeling I want to convey. Sometimes I can spend two hours on a key paragraph. I personally love writing where my emotion and understanding are greater than the sum of the words. This is true art.

Maybe everyone does have a novel in them ... I don't believe it, but for the purposes of this argument, let's say it's so. Only a few of us are willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagi.png

Creating is messy

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The full quote from Scott Belsky goes like this:

‘No extraordinary journey is linear. The notion of having established ideas and making consistent incremental progress is impossible. Those seeking a linear journey can still be successful, but often they struggle to create anything new.’

Something to remember when your work in progress isn’t doing what you want it do to. Now, get on with your creating 🙂

Baring my writing soul

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I started writing a novel in 1993 after finally getting my Arts degree (and having two kids). I didn’t believe in it or myself enough and gave up.

I went and lived: Got a job, worked overseas, witnessed revolution and war, got divorced and had a relationship with an abusive guy.

I wrote another book inspired by some of these events, this time fully supported by my new partner. I received publisher interest, but was rejected many times.

Each time I picked myself up off the floor and went back to the drawing board. I wrote three different versions of my story over 13 years. That’s around 4 years per book! (It doesn’t feel that long.)

Late last year a publisher finally said, ‘I love it. Let’s do it!’

My debut novel, Gunfire Lullabies, will be published in August 2019.

My message to my fellow writers and anyone doing something challenging is:

NEVER give up
BELIEVE in yourself
BE OPEN to constant improvement

And just KEEP ON WRITING!

Now for the next novel…(eek!)

How to Create Tension In Your Story

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Conflict is story

At the core of every story is conflict. Conflict keeps us engaged and wanting to read on. It’s meaningful and relatable, and why we love stories. This conflict must be powerful, deep and complex enough that it requires an entire novel to resolve.

How do writers technically create conflict?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Ensure the stakes are high enough – If your main character doesn’t stand to lose much, no one will care about the ending. If true love, or life and death, or a great moral dilemma fill your story, then readers will want to go on turning the pages.
  2. The opening scene must contain a mini conflict – The purpose of this is to hook your reader in by revealing key aspects of your main character while also alluding to the nature of the broader conflict they face. Opening scenes are a taster aimed at drawing the reader in for more.
  3. You must have complex and engaging characters who want different, opposing things – Given that stories are character driven, your main character needs to have many sides, and be flawed, relatable and want something badly that isn’t easy to obtain. Pitting characters who have different goals against each other creates friction and is how your characters reveal who they truly are.
  4. Conflict must be inner as well as outer – The protagonist must face internal conflict as well as some outer struggle. Stories are often about journeys of the self, about change and transformation. This must be reflected at every level in every chapter in the moral dilemmas the character has to deal with while facing opposing outer forces.
  5. The threat must be constant and immediate – The reader must feel the danger at every turn meaning in every scene and chapter. Readers shouldn’t be allowed to forget what’s at stake for a moment.
  6. Ensure the action happens in the present – While short flashbacks (no more than 1-2 paragraphs) can reveal character, they aren’t immediate. Instead, reveal character in small bites and through what they do. Keep readers in the moment by staying in the moment.
  7. Every word must count – Each word you write counts. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. In particular, use strong nouns and verbs that reflect the kind of issues at stake in your story. Likewise, if a scene doesn’t reflect the theme and move your story forward, then get rid of it. No one wants to go down rabbit holes that lead nowhere.
  8. Include scene and chapter arcs – Every scene and chapter has an arc – a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end. These components build towards the novels’ overall story arc, building tension as they go.
  9. Everything should reflect tension – The environment, the characters, the music, the smells, the colours and the weather are just some things that can reflect tension, building atmosphere in support of your story. If your character is sad, the sky can be cloudy, if they’re tense, traffic around them can be chaotic.
  10. Believe in your story and tell it passionately – If you don’t believe in your story, no one else will. Your story therefore needs to be something that you MUST tell. This will keep you writing and rewriting to perfection. Remember not to be too hard on your first draft. Add layers in the redrafts.

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
Barbara Kingsolver