Saturday, 3 November 2012

A TOAST TO COURAGE, by Pauline Fisk

It’s pitiable what we authors will sometimes do to get out of writing. Let me illustrate with a little story.  Four years ago, I started having a problem with red wine.  I liked red wine, but it no longer liked me and my throat began to hurt every time I drank it.

I switched to white.  Fine for a while, but then white wine took against me too.  Not to be put off, I became a lager ladyette instead.  But then that became a problem too. So I turned to Coke [a-Cola] - only to discover that fizzy drinks were out as well.

Thank God I could still drink coffee, tea and water on the rocks.  Lots of water on the rocks, because by that time certain foods had started going funny on me too.  Spicy foods became difficult to swallow, followed by acidic food, meaty foods, potatoes, including roasted and chipped, foods flavoured with tomato, vinegar, pepper or salt, most vegetables, most meals that were served hot, most treats including chocolate, strawberries, raspberries, dried fruit and even the bland and humble banana.

Eighteen months ago I went on a trip with my brother, who happens to be a doctor, which means when he sees his sister wincing over her every mouth of food, he doesn’t accept it as yet another example of Pauline’s random oddness, but leans across the table and says, ‘Okay, what’s wrong?’

As a result of that encounter, I’ve been in the hand of the NHS for the last seventeen months, which believe me – especially nowadays, thank you certain politicians – is not a good place to be.  I’ve had tests you don’t want to know about, and neither did I, experienced the loss of my case notes [twice] [as good a way of doctoring waiting lists as I’ve yet come across] and generally been passed around from pillar to post, sometimes in tears I’m ashamed to admit.  I’m assured that my life’s not at risk - no nasty cancer lurking or anything like that.  But the medication I’ve been put on hasn’t worked yet after several months. The only positive thing I can say about the situation is that - much as you’d expect from someone who's only comfortable consuming bread, Complan and vanilla ice cream – I’ve lost loads of weight.

Medical health is boring at the best of times. I’ve had plenty of time to think about this, so I know what I’m saying here.   So why am I boring you, you may well ask.  Am I after pity [good God, no]?  Or answers [I’m past caring, believe it or not – I just want whatever I’ve got to go away]?  Or is there some other reason I’m writing this?

Well, yes. Actually there is. What I’m meant to be writing about this month, what I’d promised myself I’d write about this month, what I even want to write about this month is my new book and the glorious news [at least to me] that I’ve started work on it.  At last.  

Except that I haven’t, I’m afraid. I've written this instead.

What is it with us authors? In my case, I’ve had a book in the pipeline for the last couple of years, thinking, scribbling, reading around my subject and generally pecking away at it on and off.  Last year I even went on a little research trip to fire myself up, but that was the trip when my brother came along, and afterwards I allowed the NHS to distract me, and now I’m doing it again by writing this post.   

Sometimes the distractions have come thick and fast - new grandchildren; author visits; Christmas; sorting out my website; joining Authors Electric and the Scattered Authors Society; bringing out ‘Midnight Blue’ as an ebook and now [soon] ‘Telling the Sea’; setting up Shrewsbury’s first National Flash Fiction Day; weaving tapestries for an exhibition and at the exhibition holding weaver-in-residence days; running writing workshops; going to Canada and writing a Canada blog; cleaning my house [yes, even that]; even going to Birmingham last week to buy the new Kindle Fire [yum, yum, it’s beautiful – more about that next month]. And now even writing this post on any other subject than the new book.

The good news about all this distraction is that it provides a chance to explore why I write.   Is it for the money [ha ha]? Is it because I can't stop? Because I don't dare stop? Because I won't feel like a worthwhile person unless I write? Or is the stories themselves that call to me? In which case, why am I excusing myself with the pathetical argument that I can’t write because my desk is too untidy, that I can’t tidy my desk because I’ve run out of bookshelf space, that I can’t buy new bookshelves because I'm hard up and I'm hard up because  I'm not writing any new books.

Why do we authors do this sort of thing to ourselves? Why is it that the one thing more than any other that we love to [want to, need to] do is the one thing that we won’t? For twenty years I never knew what writers' block was all about.  I wrote novels seamlessly back to back, barely stopping to rest. Even before that, in my earlier writing life, I was rarely to be found without notebook or pen. In fact, ever since that first little portable Olivetti my parents bought me at the age of ten [when I'd made my big career decision to become a writer when I grew up], I’ve rarely been without a keyboard either.

And now look at me, sitting in front of my lovely state-of-the-art Apple with a book bursting to be written and my head full of wonderful ideas, spending my time blogging about bookshelves and my stupid health! Never mind that I can't swallow food or glug down wine - if you want to pity me for anything, pity me for that.  

A while ago I had a conversation about this sort of thing with my agent, the wise and wonderful Laura Cecil.  ‘What you need is courage,’ she said.  And she was right.  She'd hit the nail on the head. 

Every book I’ve ever written has taken courage, but it's fair to say it's only recently I've  recognized how much. Those of you who are authors will know exactly what I'm talking about here.  Books call us to make steps in the dark, put our lives on  hold and take risks. And all for what? Often we've  no idea if anyone - including our publishers - will like what we write and, if they do, if anyone will buy.  Even if they do buy, we're to be found wondering if our books even justify the loss of all those trees. What do they count for in the grand scheme of things?  What do they even count for in our small schemes?  

These are hard times for writers, no matter what the publishers may say at conferences about us never having it so good. Old certainties are collapsing or have long-since collapsed. None of us can be sure where we stand in the face of new mega-corporations like Random Penguin, nor what these corporations bode for the future of publishing.  But the stories are still happening all around us, begging to be written.  And the world still loves stories, so the need is still there. In fact, in the face of the total ghastliness to be found in some bookshops these days, the need for writing of courage and conviction - writing that costs - is even greater than before. 

So a toast to courage, that's what I say.  And having reached my almost last word on the subject - which means [oh dear] there’s nothing left to keep me from it – a toast to starting the next book.


Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Sorry to hear this, Pauline. I'm guessing you've probably already tried slippery elm powder made into a "tea"? I am intolerant to a number of things and the NHS hasn't helped. However, if you want to try the immunologist I use, you never know. I have a number of antigen vaccines which I take for food and environmental allergens - and as a result can eat them/come into contact with them without symptoms.

Pauline Fisk said...

thank you Sarah - I sense I have a long time ahead of me to try out all sorts of things and figure what what (if) any of them work. And I'll have a go at yours too. But writing - there's no medicine like that, and being able to get going on it again is wonderful.

Pauline Fisk said...

thank you Sarah - I sense I have a long time ahead of me to try out all sorts of things and figure what what (if) any of them work. And I'll have a go at yours too. But writing - there's no medicine like that, and being able to get going on it again is wonderful.

catdownunder said...

Here is sincerely hoping that the medication works. It is hard to write if you are not feeling well!

Pauline Chandler said...

Pauline, after reading your wonderful post, I'm in tears here, not because of your dreadful health issues, which I hope will improve soon, but because of your message about courage. It's good to feel I'm not alone. Thank you.

Louise said...

Sounds awful, hope you are on the mend soon, an inspiring post,thank you.

Joan Lennon said...

The thing about courage, it seems, is that it seeps away unnoticed over time and then when we reach for it, the cup is empty. Some connection with not being 20 any more, perhaps! In the meantime we can bung bravado and sheer bloody-mindedness into the old beaker and trust in alchemy!

Meantime - get started on that book! That's an order! And I hope you feel better very very soon.

JO said...

Slippery stuff, courage. Just when we think it has slipped out of the front door and disappeared into the night it can tap us on the shoulder again. Hang in there - with the writing, and with all the medical hoo-ha. (Sounds like you need patience, as well as courage. And good friends.)

Pippa Goodhart said...

I'm also tinkering before starting something new. Might a strategy to overcoming that blank page thing be to make onself write just one short (no more than,say, ten sentences) paragraph a day to start with? Will you join me in trying that? That should surely be manageable. And if we're not allowed to write more than one paragraph a day (at least for the first week), my suspicion is that we'll find ourselves bursting with wanting to write more, and then we can open the flood-gates and let it flow. After which, of course, we'll come back and find that those initial paragraphs all need to be culled, but they've served their purpose in writing us into the story, if not our prospective readers.

Kathleen Jones said...

I think you've got courage in spades Pauline! Courage to cope with it all in real life and courage to write about it here.
Health issues are awful and maybe connected to the writing issue too? Maybe your body is telling you something and what you need most is complete rest?
I do hope that you find the right person to give you the right treatment. When I had problems with throat and stomach (stress!) I drank the digestive Aloe Vera and that was wonderful - more effective than the pills the doc gave me. And the most sceptical sceptic about 'new agey things', the best help I got for writer's block was a couple of sessions with a friend who had become a shaman. She put me into a relaxed trance and took me on a journey through my imagination. It was an amazing experience. In the end I think everyone has to find their own way out.
Virtual hugs!

Jenny Alexander said...

Great post, Pauline. I've written about courage in the creative process too I would add time - often a block, for me, turns out to be simply because I wasn't ready/able yet to do justice to the idea that's in my mind. I've just started work on a book I've been tinkering with for a decade, and now I can see why I wasn't able to complete it before. I hope this is the time for your new project :)

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Pauline - if you click on the contact link on my profile it will give you my email address. I can send you more information. It is science-based rather than alternative medicine, and it does work for me, so maybe...

Veronica Zundel said...

I'm in a similar position: should have started writing a Grove Spirituality booklet in April, but instead my mother died and now I still haven't started the project. But for ages I couldn't write poetry at all (after having an 'annus mirabilis' nearly 10 years ago in which I fell in love with someone and wrote reams of poems inspired by it). In the last year I have reduced my anti-depressants hugely, thanks to some cognitive behavioural therapy, and also been on several online poetry courses, and hey presto, a flood of poetry is emerging (it may not be any good but hey, it's a start). The writing will come when you are ready.

Pauline Fisk said...

Thank you, all of you, for your kind comments. Over the next day or so I'll try to reply to some of them individually. In the meantime, this extract from Lewis Hyde's book, 'The Gift' was pointed out to me this morning by my daughter. The underlinings are mine [PS. Sorry, they've been taken out]. This has certainly reinforced my thinking on the subject of getting writing again. Have a read and see what do you think:

‘Having accepted what has been given to him – either in the sense of inspiration or in the sense of talent – the artist often feels compelled, feels the desire, to make the work and offer it to an audience. The gift must stay in motion. ‘Publish or perish’ is an internal demand of the creative spirit, one that we learn from the gift itself, not from any school or church. In her Journal of Solitude, the poet and novelist May Sarton writes, “There is only one real deprivation, I decided this morning, and that is not to be able to give one’s gift to those one loves most… The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.”’

So long as the gift is not withheld, the creative spirit will remain a stranger to the economics of scarcity. Salmon, forest birds, poetry, symphonies or Kula shells - the gift is not used up in use. To have painted a painting does not empty the vessel out of which the paintings come . On the contrary, it’s the talent which is not in use that is lost or atrophies, and to bestow one of our creations is the surest way to invoke the next.’

Nicky said...

Sorry to hear about your health problems! Good luck with getting started.

Nicola Morgan said...

Oh gosh, you're so right about the courage! (And, as others have said, you have masses of it.)

I *do* hope the medics find a cure quickly so that you can toast finishing your new book in whatever liquid you wish!

Pauline Fisk said...

Thanks Nicola. An ice cold lager wouldn't go amiss, particularly if I finish on a hot, sunny day. But I wouldn't turn up my nose at red wine or champagne either. If the NHS has anything to do with it,though, it's more likely to still be water on the rocks. I spent twenty-five minutes today driving round my local hospital's car park looking for a place to park, only to be told when I finally made it to my clinic that I'd arrived too late and missed my slot! Gggrrr.