Saturday 12 January 2019

New Year, New… well, hmmm.

It feels really good to be sat here writing this. It’s an actual joy. Why? Because it’s been a while, that’s why. It’s been a while because toward the end of last year, I took a class on writing short fiction. During that time, and since, my focus has been on fiction.

I love learning to write fiction. It’s challenging and interesting and completely engaging. My classmates and I have formed a writing group, to continue the practice of sharing our work and giving honest and unbiased feedback. Albeit in a kind, encouraging way. Which is vital, I think, to the effectiveness of constructive feedback on creative work. You need to be gentle when you’re that intimately involved with someone else’s head. I know I definitely need that respect and sensitivity in order to remain open to other ideas and perspectives.

I’m finding fiction writing to be as all-consuming as blogging, just in a different way. When writing fiction, it feels like the words and ideas come from a place just outside of my awareness. The characters might be familiar to me, they might be similar to me or someone I know in ways, but at the same time, they are none of these things, they have their own identities. I can’t control this process, or really understand it, all I can try to do is, kind of, guide them to the page and fact check them afterwards. I’m sorry if this sounds a bit pretentious, but it really is the only way I can describe it. It all goes horribly wrong if I try to control the story or the direction it wants to go in.
I’m learning what my bad habits are. My tendency to explain something one way, and then explain it again using slightly different words immediately after. I present an idea, then double down on it in the next sentence for emphasis, denoting a lack of faith in both the reader and myself (yes, I did do that one on purpose. But you’ll notice the ones I miss more easily now!)  I’m learning to communicate the character through their emotions and actions, rather than telling you who they are and how I think you should feel about them. The only way to do this is through empathy. I have to listen to them and show you who they are in such a way that you (hopefully) give enough of a shit to keep reading. I’m also trying to edit, because, good God, I do go on – you, of all people, know this!

Altogether, this process is quite draining for a number of reasons, and it has led to a neglect of this other side of me. The side of me that really wants to TELL you all of the batshit crazy thoughts in my head, the part of me that needs blogging to help me get through this insane fucking ride we call being alive. Writing for a purpose is like any other pastime or job, you’re invested and you’re along for the ride and you do your best, but it’s not really within your control. Blogging is the closest I ever get to giving a voice to my thoughts. Whoever is speaking to you, right now, is the best approximation of me there is. This is why I have such gratitude for your readership, because you give me an excuse to keep going. And I really do need to keep going.

I briefly thought about doing a New Year resolution type post, because that’s what we do to ourselves, isn’t it? We couldn’t possibly let go and have a break without immediately spanking ourselves afterward, could we? Making January by far the most masochistic month of the year. But, when I asked myself the question, do I have any resolutions? The answer came back as a resounding No. What I do have are a lot of intentions and wants and ideas, and what I’m going to do is, to use the technical term, wing it. I’m gonna step forward like some idiot caught up in the Bird Box challenge and blindly stagger forward to deal with whatever crap comes up. That’s my great Master Plan.

In thinking about this, I realise that what I actually want to reflect on are the ideas that have consolidated in me during the last year. I’ve chosen to categorise these into five examples. Examples that are, ultimately, just my interpretations of stuff that people much wiser than me have already figured out. If you’re in that category, feel free to revel in your smugness, you’ve earned it.


1.       People are incredibly complex. Like, fuck me, complex.

When I was a kid and way too far into my adulthood, I viewed the world through a black and white lens. People either fell into a category of mostly good or mostly bad, and actions that caused hurt or upset generally led to that person receiving a label of ‘bad’. This is pretty normal for kids, I think, to see the world in absolutes. It certainly helps in setting clear boundaries to keep us safe. There is a need for ideas like ‘fire = bad’ to be over-simplified and devoid of ambiguity. The problem is that it’s quite easy, in turn, to apply this categorisation to people. It’s only through life experience and growth and change and seeing more of the world and different perspectives that you start to realise the painful nuance of most peoples' existence, and the reason this clicks is usually because your own life has developed a relatable level of confusing complexity.

                I’ll give you an example. If I were to explain to you the top five situations on my mind right now, I’m confident that your reaction, even those of you who know me incredibly well, will range from ‘aw yeah, that makes sense’ to ‘what the actual fuck, who in the hell are you, anyway?’ My answer to which would be, ‘right? Don’t have the slightest clue, son.’ And if my silly little life is a bundle of contradictions, messy connections, and conflicted priorities, then I’m going to go out on the so-tiny-it-isn’t-even-a-limb-at-all to assume that pretty much everyone else’s existence is too.

                Why is this an important lesson worth mentioning? Because it takes a lot of the goddamn pressure off. I’m less concerned with self-flagellation and holding myself to an unrealistic standard, and more interested in learning about myself. Because our reactions to everything teach us something about ourselves. Accepting things for how they are, as messy and unsatisfying and stupid and wonderful as they really are, is the first step toward coping with them. Acceptance doesn’t fix any of your problems, but it does help you to carry them.

2.       You’re so very special, and completely, well, not special

Speaking as someone who is gradually crawling along from one-end of the self-esteem spectrum toward the, well, middle-ish, I know what it is to feel like you’re the least important being on the planet. But the thing is, we’re all somewhere on that spectrum, all trying to work toward some kind of equilibrium. Or, we’re completely unaware that we need movement in either direction, and that kind of rigid thinking is actually really scary. Although I’d interpret that response as more likely to be denial than ignorance.

                It’s so easy for us to get caught up in the drama of our own lives, and convince ourselves that our path is the most difficult one to walk. But the pain you carry is the same pain that every other person carries, it’s just that everyone else’s manifests in a unique way that’s relevant to them. There are more similarities than differences, though, and it’s important to remember that. Undoubtedly, we’ll forget this and get caught up in own self-pity sometimes, but then life will throw a curve ball that will humble you and remind you that your perspective is just one of an infinite number. This doesn’t invalidate your pain, your experience is your own and you’re entitled to it, but it does contextualise it, and helps you to be a kinder, more sympathetic person. Sometimes the best way to deal with your pain is to get completely get away from yourself and do something that’s of benefit to someone else or the world at large. Doing this can and will have a positive impact beyond your own life. I know this, because the love, patience, understanding and kindness that has been given to me by my friends, has helped me to change my life.

3.       The world is but a stage

For all of this talk of meaning, the other side to the coin is - the character that you’re playing, this life that you’re living, it really is just a performance. You don’t know what’s going to happen or how long you have the part for, you’ve just got to do the best you can with everything you’re presented with. We’re all masters of improv, in this regard.

                This lack of control, and this unknowable future, has terrified me for the longest time. If you look at my history, this makes complete sense. Even putting aside all of the other things that happened, a big trigger for me was witnessing my best friend collapse and die when I was 13. This is not a woe-is-me-thing; that tragedy affected many people in many ways, and the real tragedy will always be the loss to the world of Laura. But this event, for me, took away every safe space. There was no control, no way of holding onto people that you love, no way being able to anticipate or counter any event, just the random nature of life and death. This is why I’ve always found it so hard to let go. It’s why I’ve put so much energy into this illusion of control. But you can’t live life through avoiding pain, it just won’t allow for it. I’ve been taught some hard lessons in recent years, but what has helped me to manage my ongoing anxiety over these situations, is learning how to step out of the narrative of ‘Chrissy’s life’, every now and then.

                I manage to do this through meditation. Don’t get me wrong, I was so good at avoiding my emotions that the first few times I tried this, I just cried. I had to acknowledge so much crap that had been sitting with me for a long time, before I could let go enough to just be in the moment. Breathing in and out. Nothing actually exists outside of that moment, and that moment is always now. You can only do this fleetingly, you have a role to play. But it’s a relief to step outside of it all for a moment and remember that behind it is nothing, and everything, and whatever it is that observes our thoughts and witnesses our existence. It also helps you to stop spiralling when you start to take yourself too seriously.

                Of course, there are lots of effective ways to change your perception in this manner, but with some of those, you need to be mindful of the consequences. It’s worth remembering that there is nothing that can be brought out in those moments that isn’t already within you – that joy of just being, that ability to find the fun in any moment no matter how silly or insignificant it is, that’s always there for you, it’s just about how you access it.

4.       Anything worth having, involves some level of risk

I’m always looking for perfection, while having no faith in my ability to even come close. A perfect situation, solution, realisation, perspective, answer, insight, connection, outcome, all of it. But perfection is impossible. The paradox makes me risk averse. I’m so afraid of fucking everything up. What I have learned is that, I will fuck up. I will fuck up continuously for the rest of my life. The only way to avoid that is to never do anything, to never risk being seen.

Joining the writing class was a good example of positive risk taking for me. Because writing is such a personal passion, I knew that it would be hard to open myself up in that manner and expose myself to rejection. But it felt so good to come at it from a place of humility and vulnerability. Scary, but good. And, as often happens in life, I now wonder why it took me that long to finally do it. But, shoulda, woulda, coulda, the important thing is that I did it at all, and it’s reminded me that everything worth having is worth risking a part of yourself for. Otherwise you’re just, kind of, waiting for life to change around you, and the problem is that it will change whether you want it to or not. I think I’d rather be remembered for being messy and clumsy and confusing and frustrating but at least as someone who tried to break free from their own constraints. Besides, the fact that nothing is, or ever can be, perfect, is what keeps things interesting.

Of the three countries I’ve lived in, it’s the not the moments of high adventure or the overwhelming beauty that each place has, in its own way, that got under my skin and into my heart. It’s the charmingly sincere or unapologetically ordinary that I enjoy, or miss.

It’s sitting on the bus from Halifax to Huddersfield, on the top deck, right at the front, watching as we pass the dark, bare tree branches, heavy with rain, lining the road. Watching the grey sky, the muddy tracks in the grass, all through dirt on the windows so thick I can barely see out. A journey I’ve made countless times. That image anchors me, envelops me, pulls my heart back to the place that still feels like home.  

It’s sitting in a little tin shack in Phan Thiết, huddled around lamps in the dark of the night, smelling the sea air and listening to the high pitched squeaks of the bats, awkwardly trying to communicate with the kind locals. The beer warm because it’s being drunk faster than it can cool, breaking peanut shells and letting them fall to the dirt floor along with the stones of the Jackfruit, and I feel the crackle of excitement of being somewhere so different, somewhere I never imagined I could be.

It’s sitting in a B&B in Dunedin, hokey and old-fashioned and out of place in the modern world. A hearth in the room and a VHS player that can no longer be connected to the TV, the smell of lavender and the feeling of thick carpet beneath my feet. I get down to my underwear and wrap myself up in a duvet, lying back on a worn out reclining chair. One of the house cats steps through the open window and settles on my lap. I lie there with the cat purring, reading, and I feel relaxed for the first time in a year. I already know in that moment, that the earnestness of this country will teach me to embrace myself in a way I never have before.

                And this is just the love I feel for places, let alone people. All of these moments wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t, at some point, taken a risk.  

5.       The call really is coming from inside the house

This is something that RuPaul says a lot in relation to our struggle with our identity and experience of the world. Eventually you realise that the narrative you’re telling yourself isn’t coming from the outside in, it’s coming from the inside out. Which is scary, on the one hand, to realise that you don’t really have a true understanding of what’s going on or what other people might think, but it’s also very freeing because, if you’re telling the story, you have the power to change it.

                Here’s the rub – our brains have a very difficult time discerning between reality and fiction. Bear with me on this. How events, real or imagined, affect us, all comes down to the emotional weighting we give to them. When we are in the grip of powerful emotions, our brain forms mental pathways, or at worst, creates trauma. It’s why you can watch a horror film and afterward be nervous about going to the bathroom in the dark. Logically you know it’s bollocks to have any fear of anything you’ve just seen, but our reptile brains have already interpreted what we’ve witnessed as a legitimate threat, and our senses heighten accordingly. This is why our memories are so unreliable, after time, we recall emotions over facts.

                For example, I’ve always had a deep distrust of journalism, and an even deeper distrust of courts and lawyers. The question is, why? What events in my life led to these ideas? Both points of view felt valid, but it was only when I was questioned on my perspective recently that I realised that one memory was real and the other was a construct.

                The distrust of journalists began when my friend passed away. Because it was sudden and shocking and terrible, it was all over the newspapers the next day. I remember reading those articles, shaking with anger. So much speculation on details, on the sequence of events, reported as fact. I remember that feeling of impotence, of realising that anyone reading this would take it as reality, despite it being full of fiction to make up for the truths they didn’t have. From then on, I’ve always been wary of anything I read. Journalists have a job to do, and because they have to respond quickly to events, it’s necessary to fill in the gaps to create a full story. If this is the case for a local paper, I’m confident that it’s a thousand times worse for bigger news outlets. This, I feel, is a pretty rational response to a real event.
                But the courtroom thing – where did that come from? When I actually began to think about it, I realised that feeling was based on a *fictional* courtroom role-play I’d participated in during an English lesson in Year 9. I was playing the mother of a boy who had killed himself, and the case was to determine whether he had been bullied into doing it. The defence questioned me on who my fake son’s favourite football team was, and I ad-libbed because I hadn’t put it in my statement. My classmate kept insisting that I had given a different answer previously, and I remember that maddening feeling of being gas lighted in front of my peers. It turned out that our teacher had just added the name of a football team onto my statement without telling me. Oh, the injustice! The whole carry on made it look like my perception of events was invalid and the case was lost.  All of that embarrassed outrage was then channelled into a deep distrust that, to this day, I can’t shake, despite now knowing that the event that instigated the anxiety was entirely fictional.

                The upshot of all of this is the realisation that we have more power over the stories we tell ourselves than we think, and, if we’re honest, we have zero power over the narrative that other people have in regard to us. It’s within you to destroy yourself, or to become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.* It’s all about being mindful of how you internalise events, and remembering to question your reactions and perspectives. Because the likelihood is, if you’re focusing solely on your skewed viewpoint, you’ll miss those moments when the universe shows you that the truth is far more complex and unknowable than the story you’ve created.


                All of this is just the usual meanderings of a restless mind, but I know that I’ve drawn strength from each of these little realisations, and I know that I'm stepping forward into 2019 a more courageous, more rounded, and more aware person version of myself. With this comes a better understanding of my own (many and varied) flaws and weaknesses. But that feels like a good place to be starting from, because I’m finally down to hashing things out with the only other person who’s really in the room - me.

                I wish you the best of luck with any resolutions you may have made, I just ask you to consider doing an exercise a little like this as well. Rather than only focusing on how far you’ve yet to go, on what you still feel you lack, maybe spend a moment to consider how far you’ve come in this last year, and how much you have gained as person. If you’re anything like me, it might help you to propel yourself into whatever new terrible and wonderful experiences the year ahead will undoubtedly have in store.

* I know ;o)

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