What I did at 40

Recently on social media, people were spreading a little positivity by sharing some of the things they’ve done in their 40s of which they’re proud. I didn’t take part at the time although I wanted to because a) I’m too slow on the uptake and b) the contrarian in me doesn’t like to rush along doing whatever everyone else is doing at that particular moment. But on reflection I thought it a lovely – and inspiring – thing to do (my writer-publisher friend Tracey Scott-Townsend has published a fascinating series of ‘What I did at 50’ posts on her blog and she’s had a brilliant response to that).

Anyway, as I was contemplating the necessity of updating my writing publications page on this blog I realized that there were several things I’d done since I turned 40 of which I was proud. And what struck me about them was that about two decades ago I wouldn’t have imagined myself doing or achieving any of those things.

Although I’d always envisaged marriage and children being a part of my life I never really had a clear vision of what I’d be doing in my 40s (back then 40 seemed like a lifetime away and well, just a bit decrepit, yeah?!). I thought that going down the science path would be the best thing to do because of my keen interest in the subject, and I have (in general) always thought science to be a powerful tool that could be wielded for good, in terms of society and the environment. Also, jobs in science seemed plentiful.

But, at 28 I discovered that the career part of the science career wasn’t really for me. However, I made a new discovery – that I had an aptitude for teaching (others as well as myself) and I had a desire to write (I’d always been writing poetry on and off, but I began my first novel at age 28). So I taught science instead. Then marriage and children followed soon after, and a much greater appreciation for what it takes to be a mum, raise children and run a household. I stopped teaching before my eldest daughter was born. But throughout those tumultuous early months – and years – I kept writing in snatched moments. The end result of that newfound appreciation of breastfeeding, mothering, and writing was my small press Mother’s Milk Books. So that, I suppose, has to be the first of the things I’d never expected myself to do.

 

Running an indie press

This September Mother’s Milk Books will be eight years old. I still feel as much enthusiasm about producing new books and publishing authors now as I did at the start of the journey (though I must admit the admin side of things seems to have exponentially increased – and admin really isn’t my favourite!). The extra bonus of running the press is that I’ve learnt so much about writing and the publishing industry – and how to get a foot in the door – that I now teach others on this subject (through workshops etc.). I’ve mentored and supported a number of up-and-coming writers and poets and I love seeing them grow and improve in their writing.

Teika at Waterstones

At a recent ‘How to Get Published’ workshop I ran for Writing East MIdlands.

 

Blogging with my husband about all things publishing/writing

I always thought that working with my husband would be fantastic, but it hasn’t been until recently that we’ve put two of our interests together – my interest in making the workings of the publishing world more transparent and his interest in the neuroscience and psychology of motivation, procrastination and productivity – and created a website called The Book Stewards. So if you’re a writer who’d appreciate some insider information – into the publishing world, and the workings of their brain, do check it out!

 

Getting up early to write

Goodness me, I never thought I’d be the kind of person who’d harp on about the wonders of getting up early and writing, but this year I finally got round to sticking to a new work schedule which involved getting up at around 6.30 a.m. and writing for about 45 minutes before getting breakfast ready for everyone. I CANNOT say that I jump out of bed eagerly, going Wahoo! but, still, I do drag myself out of bed and, bleary-eyed, get some words down on the page. The toughest thing about it is probably having to drag myself away from the laptop to make breakfast when I’m in writing ‘flow’. The two nicest things about this is: 1) how comfortably silent the house is and 2) the cat joining me and curling up beside me.

 

Weightlifting

When my husband first got into weightlifting a few years ago I wasn’t impressed by the sheer volume a set of weights and dumbbells takes up, but then I learnt about the whole HIIT (high intensity and interval training) from Joe Wicks, of which weights is a part, and it appealed to me because 1) as a way to lose weight and tone up, scientifically speaking it makes sense and 2) I’ve always had the build of a somewhat – ahem – cushioned, Amazon warrior so why not play to that? Also, being able to lift something that looks ridiculously heavy is weirdly pleasing.

 

Jogging

There was a period in my mid-twenties when jogging was one of my weekly exercises, but, sadly, a dodgy knee brought that to an end (most likely due to my hypermobility). I genuinely thought I’d never run again. At the start of this year a neighbour-friend of mine was doing the Couch-to-5K programme and asked if I wanted to take part. My first reaction was that of horror. I couldn’t run! My dodgy knee! My wobbly belly! My complete lack of running finesse! Anyway, to cut a long story short, six months on I’m still running for 30 minutes twice a week and it’s simply become a thing I do. I still worry about the dodgy knee (from time to time it gives me warning twinges), and every time I set off I think that what I’m about to do is utter madness, but somehow I get through the madness and the twinges and get to the end of the 30 minute jog, very proud of myself.

Teika after jogging

Marbled leggings and a 25-year-old Cure t-shirt is THE thing to be wearing while jogging.

 

 

Having a story in the Best of British Science Fiction 2018

Although I have a background in science I’m relatively new to writing science fiction (about three or four years). To tell the truth, I feel as though I’m somewhat an imposter in this field because I didn’t spend my childhood reading all the scifi classics and Golden Era novels (though I did watch a lot of science fiction on the screen – Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Bladerunner and Inner Space immediately spring to mind etc.).

 

 

But I guess all that TV/movie watching paid off because I’ve now had several short stories published by scifi magazines and even managed to have one of those stories picked up for the Best of British Science Fiction 2018, (now available for pre-order), which delights me no end. In the meantime I’m catching up with my scifi reading and loving it! Of course I’m continuing to get a frequent number of rejections, but my son’s words of encouragement mean everything to me and keep me going during the nth rejection of the month.

 

‘The Future of Science Fiction’ – a story by my son in which I have the starring role!

 

Making art

Technically, I began my attempt to make art a few years before hitting 40, but I feel much more like I’m hitting my stride when it comes to art now. (Although I’m not entirely sure that what I am creating could actually be classified as art – Grayson Perry’s book about what art is or isn’t, Playing to the Gallery, definitely made me reconsider my own work.) BUT I am having immense fun drawing, painting, doodling, papercutting, art glass making and inking, and it’s my go-to activity if I need to slow down and get my head straight. And really, art or not art, it’s the joy of the process that matters.

 

 

Actually, that can be applied to all the above. They’re not about the destination, but the journey.

Narratives of birth and death and all that there is in between: 5 poetry collection reviews

Work and writing projects have kept me from adding much to my blog recently, but I love this little space of mine and so will continue to “slow blog” in my own unique and eclectic manner. Of late, poetry has been on my mind for various reasons, and in a desire to give back to Poetry World I am reviewing the following collections. I can highly recommend them all.

 

Land and Sea and Turning by Kate Garrett is a pleasingly substantial pamphlet given its slimness; the paper of the pamphlet is relatively thick and I like the black endpapers – a most striking and fitting touch given the cover art. The poems balance light and dark, leaving and arriving, so skilfully that, often, I do not know how the trick is done. In general, the themes are dark and disquieting, but Garrett has such a light, skilful touch that even the most macabre of topics – for example, an obscure medieval tradition of mutilating corpses in case of possible reanimation – becomes an entrancing, rewarding read. Then, in between, there will be a poem about a more general subject such as mothering which, to my mind, opens the whole collection and provides it with an uplifting airiness. ‘Witchling’ (about her daughter, Saoirse) is a sweet gem of a poem, though it is still infused with Garrett’s trademark fairy tale sharpness, and ‘From one room to another’ is a gorgeous, romantic poem, its rhythm drawing you on through the couplets.

‘For Josephine’ is one of my favourites in the pamphlet and a beautifully understated poem to a woman

 

“…whose lips prayed their last as she

ran for the train, ran for the tracks

and flew, just once, to land at the feet

of strangers in a station, to land in a grave

 

belonging to “The Girl in Blue”….”

 

 

Kate is fast becoming one of my favourite poets and I very much look forward to reading more from her.

*

Angela Topping’s latest book, The Five Petals of Elderflower, is a compelling collection by a poet truly at the height of her powers. Topping’s poems make for easy reading, in that the language is straightforward and unfussy which, actually, makes them all the more remarkable. To convey so much power in such a direct yet subtle way is extraordinary and marks out Topping as a poet through and through. I also love the way she can’t be boxed-in into any particular ‘type’ of poet. When reading her poems on nature – ‘Seed Time’ is a favourite – I can’t help thinking: this is her forte. And then she will blow me away with a poem about an apparently small moment – a mother and daughter posing together for a photo – with its insights into the mother-daughter bond:

 

“…For this studio photograph

they are stitched together, a book bound dos á dos.

It has always been this way with mothers and daughters.”

 

From ‘They Pose Together’

 

This is a gorgeous-looking book, put together with real love, and I really hope that Topping’s next collection, small or large, comes out soon.

*

On the other hand, in Loneliness is the Machine that Drives the World, Grant Tarbard, another poet through and through, uses language in a more tricksy, mysterious way. The sometimes uncanny images he conjures are striking in their juxtaposition.

 

“Gathering a rich patchwork of echoes

in the desolate breakfast of wild hair,

dyed white under the cracked sun – he ventures to

speak with the sand for forty days and forty nights.”

 

From ‘Sage of the Wastes’

 

Through his poetry the reader is able to perceive the world through a rather uncanny lens, simultaneously otherworldly though, often, rotten within:

 

“all lilies, all buds,

stink of life’s rotten sweetness,

the scent of a wreath”

 

From ‘I’ll Be No-One Again’

 

His is the kind of writing I would most like to emulate, yet it is frustratingly difficult to achieve. So, instead, l’ll leave the likes of Tarbard up to it and make do with my own style, while admiring his so much. I also want to add that the quality of the pamphlet is very high. The pamphlet is a real object of beauty in its own right and I am very glad to have discovered the press, Platypus Press, because of it.

*

Out of all the poets I can “hear” Cathy Bryant’s voice the most. When I read her poems it is as though she’s in the room with me, sitting beside me, having a poetical conversation. Her poetry is warm and witty, yet sharp and precise when it needs to be, the themes she writes about, as well as the voices she uses, eclectic. Her latest collection, Erratics – with its striking and fitting cover art – is rather like a hug from a good friend, her poem ‘Warmer Places’ a fine example of the poet’s warmth:

 

“then her eye catches mine at the right angle

and we laugh ourselves into a new season

and a warmer place.”

 

Though, as I said earlier, she can sting when she wants to:

 

“Yes, England welcomed the uncommercial,

artistic and odd, said Sylvia.

And didn’t we make her stay special.”

 

From ‘Sylvia Plath Talks About England’

 

A sucker for good storytelling (and Cathy really is a natural when it comes to storytelling) I will look forward to reading more of Cathy’s poetry.

*

Lastly, Moon Milk, by Rachel Bower is a pamphlet on the themes of new motherhood and family life – topics close to my heart. Having read a lot of poetry on these themes through my publishing work I feel quite well-versed in the various approaches writer-mothers take when tackling these subjects and see a fair bit of familiar imagery. What I particularly liked about Rachel’s pamplet is how different it is, and yet it still manages to be fresh and full of warmth, something that I feel is very difficult to achieve well in this context. ‘Slow Ship’, ‘Oyster’ and ‘Amber’ are beautifully crafted and some of my favourites – resonating as they do with my own experiences.

 

“I hope to remember the woman I was

before he was born, the sculptor of rain

 

but when his small cry balloons

I become the milk that surges in,

his face a pearl in my arms.”

 

From ‘Oyster’

 

The pamphlet is a gorgeous book in its own right – the paper pleasingly thick, the interior design elegant and the cover striking. Well done to Valley Press for publishing a book that I would’ve eagerly taken on. I will keep my eye on what Rachel does next…

On Bread and Love

 

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

 

When I first read the above I didn’t give much thought to it. Maybe because, at first glance, it appears to be a blandly general insight: for love to last, you have to put effort in. Not exactly ground-breaking. Then again, maybe I didn’t give much thought to it because I’m not one of those people who properly make bread from scratch, the aroma of a freshly baked loaf just waiting to be slathered in butter or honey or jam, permeating their house, signalling to the visitor that this person really is the bees knees, for they can make bread. You see, I cheat. In general, I buy supermarket bread, or use my trusty secondhand bread maker when I want something fresh and hot. So maybe I immediately considered myself out of the loop. Metaphorically speaking, I was the someone who cuts corners in the effort required to make a relationship work. And no one really wants to be the corner cutter. Humph.

 

 

Over time, I mulled over the insight and considered how much I do make from scratch every single day. How so many people make stuff from scratch every single day. Particularly those with lots of little mouths and growing bodies to feed. Breakfasts, lunches, dinners. (Gawd I make a lot of those! Sometimes it feels as though I’m only ever five minutes away from serving up more food.) Snacks. Desserts. Birthday cakes. But not only is there the food, there are the stories and poems, the little artworks that are seemingly magicked out of thin air, courtesy of that curious thing called imagination.

So okay, I’m not a proper bread maker (oh how I yearn for that particular talent!) but I – like so many others – do know about making stuff from scratch and about being in a long-term relationship. Last year my husband and I reached a milestone: we’d been together (21 years) for the same length of time we hadn’t been together. So from this year onwards we will have spent more of our lives together than apart. Which, if you think about it, is a little bit strange, but also a whole lot of wonderful.

Ursula Le Guin’s words about love (whether or not you want to use bread or something else as the metaphor) are absolutely true. But this insight isn’t often discussed. Probably because it’s not as exciting as the first phase of a relationship. If you’re a limerent like me then the beginning of a romance is all fireworks and shooting stars, a pounding heart and a deep, deep yearning. However, that first stage of limerence passes. It simply has to. And then, what are you left with? You’re left with the reality of two people trying to make a go of staying together, of keeping their love fresh throughout the years. And like anything that’s worth doing, it can sometimes be hard to do.

There are times when you just coast along, almost living parallel lives (this is particularly likely to occur in midlife/when children come along and pull you in different directions) and you think (to return to the bread making metaphor) that hey, you know, that’s okay, because everyone needs to cut corners in a while, and so what if you haven’t made any fresh bread recently? It’ll happen soon. When this task/event/work thing/kid’s thing/family thing is done and sorted, we’ll have more time to connect and be together. But you see, if you keep putting off the reconnecting, it makes it all that harder to reconnect. Also, while you’re busy living parallel lives there’s the possibility that you might get pulled closer to someone else. Or some other life goal that doesn’t involve your partner or family. Then the reconnecting that you always meant to do simply doesn’t happen at all.

So Le Guin’s insight is both banal and wise. After being together for 21 years my husband and I could coast along, but we both know that in the long-term that’s not a wise plan. We have to make time for each other, and for those many small – yet, ultimately, big – gestures of love: a cup of tea in the morning. A favourite packed lunch. A chat over coffee. A hug. A simple show of our belief in each other, ‘You can totally do this!’ Or an expression of genuine interest, ‘How are you? How was your day?’ accompanied by real, proper listening. Sometimes, it’s about saying ‘I’m sorry’ when you know you’ve messed up.

For us, this Valentine’s Day, there won’t be fireworks or shooting stars (or handmade bread!) but there may well be a dinner that someone else cooks for us, and best of all, there’ll be love and laughter and a renewing of our resolution to keep making our love fresh, every day.

Reflecting on 2018 and a Giveaway!

Reflection is always valuable, but the end of the year provides the perfect excuse to pause and reflect on one’s achievements and mess-ups with a view to planning for the year ahead. My husband calls it ‘scheming and dreaming’ and it’s one of my favourite things to do.

First, though, a look back on 2018. It’s been a good year for me writing-wise. Although the first half of the year didn’t yield many publishing credits the pieces that were accepted I was incredibly proud of, and it felt great to be part of the publications: Bonnie’s Crew – a fundraising poetry anthology edited by the amazing Kate Garrett – and Café Stories: The Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2018. Dinesh sounds to have been an incredible man and I’m ever so grateful to Comma Press for introducing me to his writing.

In the last half of the year I also achieved some ‘firsts’: having a poem being published in Prole (which I’ve tried to get into a fair few times) as well as receiving my first pro payment for a speculative fiction story (‘The Green Man’ in Reckoning). Two other firsts were writing some science fiction poetry and seeing it published in Multiverse, as well as having my short story ‘ATU334 the Wise’ be featured in a podcast created by Shoreline of Infinity. There’s something very special about hearing a great narrator read your story (and knowing that other people are actually listening to it!). An article about small press publishing in Mslexia was another wonderful first. Publication in Atrium, I Am Not A Silent Poet and Zoomorphic (with a strange short fiction piece about jellyfish which I thought no one would ever publish) were also highlights.

 

Created during Inktober 2018

 

Having my essay ‘The Darkness Within, The Darkness Without’ win the short non-fiction category in the 2018 Nottingham Writers’ Studio Awards was pretty special too, and it made me brave enough to think that just maybe I could write more non-fiction about fairy tales. So off I went to offer an essay on one of my favourite fairy tales – ‘Bluebeard’ – to Luna Press Publishing for their Evolution of Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction collection. I have to admit that I found the 3000+ word essay a real challenge as I haven’t written in an academic style for a LONG time. And in the course of writing the essay I wrote a ‘Bluebeard’-inspired short story (about 3000 words long) which I had super fun writing. The story took me a couple of hours over the course of a couple of days to write. The essay took me an hour or two every day for almost 6 weeks. A reminder to myself: fiction is easier to write than academic prose!

Amidst all this short story writing and academic writing (as well as all the work I do for my press) was the creation of a novella and the start of a non-fiction book. Now, the novella is finished but my editor-extraordinaire husband says it needs rewriting (he’s right, it does) and that perhaps I could explore some of the themes in more detail (I can, and I want to). But it does rather mean that the novella would then turn into a novel, which is something that I can’t commit to right now. The non-fiction book is interesting too…. Because at the last moment I decided to enter it into a prize thingy. Then it turned out to have been shortlisted (with some agent interest in it). I found out about it one Friday evening in the middle of cooking burgers for our dinner. I almost burnt the burgers whilst busy doing an impression of Galadriel from Lord of the Rings when offered the one ring by Frodo.

 

 

Me: (Addressing the astonished cat.) “You offer me your interest freely. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this. (Arms slowly being raised while my hair floats about my face majestically.) In place of a dark lord/career author you would have a queen of prose! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn, treacherous as the sea. Stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love my books and despair!”

The cat fled, terrified, and thankfully I passed the test, calmed down a bit and rescued the burgers from setting on fire. Phew! The upshot of all this craziness is that the agent is still interested in the book but she needs to see a lot more of it. So, in 2019 I really need to get my non-fiction hat back on and to get typing! (Though the first thing I’ll have to do in January is my tax return. Damn it…!)

Lastly, taking part in #100DaysofWriting was a big help – I don’t think I would’ve written quite as much if it wasn’t for the incentive to write something every day, hence ensuring that each writing project trundled that bit further along to completion.

What are your plans for 2019? I’d love to hear about them. And if you leave a comment below I’ll enter you in my (somewhat belated) 6 year blogging anniversary giveaway in which I’m giving away these 3 goodies. 🙂

 

Goodies galore!

 

The giveaway will run until midnight GMT on Sunday 27th January 2019 and I’ll announce the winners shortly afterwards. (This offer is open to anyone living in any country, but if someone outside the UK does win, a contribution toward postage would be appreciated.)

Whatever your plans for the year ahead I wish you a very happy, healthy and creative 2019!

 

The Rise and Rise of Renaissance Woman

A year or two ago I went to an event at the excellent Five Leaves Bookshop and got chatting to one of my fellow attendees who set something alight in my head. I don’t remember the context – just that this person mentioned ‘Renaissance Man’ or ‘Renaissance Woman’ and I thought Aha! This is of interest…

My brain filed it away under ‘inspirational bits and bobs’ and then forgot all about it. Then, a week ago I was talking to my daughter about school. And how it seemed like there was always some kid who was brilliant at science and some kid who was brilliant at art and some kid who was a maths whizz and some kid who could run the cross-country race in, like, two seconds flat. Yet my daughter bemoaned the fact that she wasn’t brilliant at any one thing. She was merely all right at most things. I tried my best to listen and empathise. For I, too, was the kid who was all right at most things. If I studied really hard and put in the effort I could even be good. Good enough to have the option to study either the humanities (I was particularly fond of English) or the sciences. But brilliance in one subject always evaded me.

 

 

Then I remembered Renaissance Woman, and sought out a dictionary definition. Basically, it is the term for a woman who is a polymath i.e. a multi-talented woman who excels in a number of different areas. (Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance Man, Queen Elizabeth I the Renaissance Woman.) But nowadays, polymaths seem to be a rarity. (Well, Stephen Fry immediately pops into my head as being a modern-day polymath but who else…?) Perhaps they seem to be a rarity because we don’t grant them polymath status until they are famous in at least two, if not three, of their endeavours (which often takes decades to achieve). Then I considered many of the creative men and women I know. Sometimes they’re writers, sometimes they’re scientists, or artists, or crafters, or musicians, or designers, or bloggers, or publishers (sometimes all these things), and they’re, all of them, busy plugging away at their many creative endeavours alongside day jobs or part-time jobs or freelance jobs, or running the household and looking after their families, as well as taking part in a sport and community clubs/charities. What of these talented individuals? Surely they qualify for polymaths status?

Again, I would suggest, that polymath status is only conferred when a certain level of success/fame is achieved. And until then we might label them with the rather less charitable status of ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’. I can see the distinction, particularly when someone repeatedly dabbles in one area only to give it up shortly afterwards to dabble in another area. But what does an emerging polymath look like? Mightn’t they look like the curious child who is all right at most things? Or the imaginative twenty-something who likes to do lots of things but can’t make up their mind which one thing to do? Or the older man or woman who is finally making some progress in their various creative endeavours after years of continual effort?

Of course, if one day I had enough of a body of high quality creative work to have critics look upon it and say, Aha, the work of a Renaissance Woman! that would be wonderful, but it’s really not the be-all-and-end-all. Because through the years I’ve spent working on my various creative projects the one incredibly important thing I’ve learnt is that this kind of multi-endeavour work is slow. Incredibly slow. Tediously slow. Because you continuously need to practise in each area every day. You don’t focus on just the one thing over and over, you pull each project along, making only a tiny amount of progress each day. Sometimes it feels like a painfully stupid way of working (particularly when financial remuneration for the work is negligible), but that’s why you have to love the work, love doing the work. Because the work itself is the reward. And occasionally you’ll feel that yes, you’re getter better at the work, you’re making progress. And that feeling is incredibly good.

So, to all the emerging polymaths out there, some encouragement: keep going, keep doing your thing. Continue to be curious about the world, continue to feed your vast, expansive and technicoloured imaginations. Just keep going. There are many of us out there who can’t wait to see what you’ll create next.

High sensitivity and social media – some guidelines that help me

 

Day 2 of Inktober, by Marija Smits

Day 2 of Inktober, by Marija Smits

 

Although much has been written about the ills of social media, I have a sense that HSPs feel the lows (and highs) of online life more acutely. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I do believe that high sensitivity, accompanied as it usually is with empathy and a deep sense of conscientiousness, only heightens the experience of being involved in social media.

An analogy from real life: as I write this I’m sitting in the car in a car park as I wait for my son to finish his gymnastics session. For the last half hour it’s been quiet, but just now a man has pulled up beside me, the radio blaring. He then proceeds to have a loud conversation on his phone. I feel my nerves getting jangled; I begin to pick the skin around my thumb nail as my stress levels increase, tearing away at the skin as I quietly, anxiously, run through my options. I consider moving the car but then worry that he’ll get offended. Heaven forbid I offend someone with my need for peace and quiet. I tell myself to sit it out – after all, I will lose some precious writing time if I move the car. I remind myself that he’s no doubt unaware of my discomfort; the level of noise emanating from his car is his normal.

Minutes pass. Eventually, I can’t take it anymore. I move the car.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem of social media for this HSP.

There are many people in this world; many of them use social media. They’re simply going about their everyday lives, expressing opinions, sharing news, what they’ve eaten for dinner, cat videos, whatever. There is nothing wrong with this. But what it ultimately results in is a lot of white noise. And many HSPs, me included, are very sensitive to noise. I have to remind myself that this sensitivity is okay. I am not at fault or broken. I just have a different level of tolerance for noise compared with others.

Life is challenging enough without the extra added (artificial) noise of social media. There are many times I’ve considered leaving Facebook and Twitter entirely. I mainly stay for two reasons: my publishing work and the core group of friends and supporters who value what I have to share and seem to actually care about what I post. You see, that’s another stress of social media for me – I feel bad for posting stuff about myself, knowing that I’m simply adding to the white noise and possibly increasing other people’s stress levels. It makes me scared to post; makes me want to run away and hide and keep silent. But when my friends respond in a positive way to something I’ve written I feel a deep well of gratitude in my heart. Being seen in this way means a lot. Because it speaks to a fundamental drive in humans: connection. E.M. Forster was right when, all those years ago, he wrote “only connect”. It’s as good a creed to live by as any.

On a practical level, then, how can an HSP navigate the noise and avoid overwhelm (as well as manage the addictive qualities of social media)? Well, like with the car guy, I will either have to tolerate it or protect myself by imposing boundaries. Tolerating it for more than only short periods of time will only lead to high stress levels though (and the skin off my thumb) so imposing boundaries has to be the way to go. So I put together the following list of things I do to help me manage my life on social media.

1. Write down why you’re there. As with most things in life, when one goes about a task with purpose, it is far more likely to be a successful venture. So before I go on social media I make a note of what it is I came there for, be it work or to post an arty/writing update on my own page, or to respond to a message/connect with a friend. It helps to keep me focussed, away from proscratination, and in and out of there before the noise gets too much.

 

Trees in autumn, photo by Marija Smits

Trees in autumn, photo by Marija Smits

 

2. Minimize “idle scrolling”. There are days when I simply don’t have time to check my feed at all (those are good days – right? – because it means I’m busy with important work such as admiring autumn trees, or busy at work/creating). Some days I easily lose an hour to scrolling through my feed. This usually results in me becoming overwhelmed by various emotions. So I’ve begun to limit the time I spend scrolling through my feed. Yes, I sometimes feel bad for not checking in with all my friends and responding to their news, but I also figure that if they’re true friends they’ll understand.

3. Curate your feed. Because I work (mainly) in the book world I have gained many lovely bookish Facebook friends. But as with any given group of people there is a certain percentage who are far more vocal than others. They post incredibly frequently and so their updates have a tendency to live at the top of your feed. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being vocal, but as with the car guy, sometimes it’s all a bit too much. I still want to be connected to them via Facebook, but a little distance is necessary. That’s when the unfollow button comes in useful by making one’s feed that little less noisy.

4. To unfriend or not to unfriend? Ah, now there’s a question! With an ever-growing number of friends/followers and friend requests I do wonder about this. After all, some people, on becoming my friend/follower proceed to have zero interaction with me (apart from asking me to like their page or whatever). And the sheer number of virtual friends I have on Facebook boggles my mind! I mean, in school, I had a couple of close friends and that was it. It was emotionally manageable. For the time being I’ve decided to not curtail my list of friends by hitting the unfriend button, but I may well change my mind about that. Interestingly, the people I have the most positive interactions with are the people I know in real life. (Barring the few not-quite-met-in-real-life writer friends who remain steadfastly inspiring and lovely.) So this is one I haven’t quite made my mind up about, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s always worth thinking carefully about who to friend (or not) in the first place. 

5. Set some ground rules. I know I can easily get addicted to computer games, so I’ve had to set a rule: it’s always a no to requests to play Candy Crush (or whatever). My whole life would pass in a blur if I was to ever start playing this. Likewise, my tiny bank account would empty tout-suite if I donated to every friend’s birthday fundraiser. Again, I feel bad that I can’t donate, but I’m sure people understand.

6. Impose a curfew. From past experience I know that ‘just hopping into an (apparently lighthearted) conversation’ before bedtime can lead to a lot of stress. Miscommunication is rife on social media. Crucially, social media doesn’t present you with the all-important body language of the person you’re engaging with. In real life HSPs are very good at picking up on these visual cues and sensing/intuiting people’s feelings (whatever face they’re presenting us with). On social media you get nothing, well, apart from emojis. (I can see their appeal – they certainly have their uses – but they’re not a substitute for the myriad and subtle emotions a real human being can express through their body.) So, 9 p.m. is my limit. Otherwise I may well end up going to bed full of unexpressed and not-worked-through emotions. Not good. Cue staying up half the night… (In addition to my self-imposed curfew I also try to stay off social media most Saturdays to keep this time for family only, if possible.)

7. Be mindful of how you message. Ah, now this is one I know I’m guilty of not always doing. Sometimes I need a quick response to something and so I pop a message on messenger or send a direct message via Twitter. But I also know that publishers (me included) find ourselves somewhat deluged by these kinds of messages. Email really is a much better way of communicating when it comes to work stuff. So, one to remind myself of – use email when possible!

8. Beware the troll! Thankfully, I’ve had a fairly sheltered online existence so far, but it hasn’t totally left me immune to the dreaded troll attack. Naif that I am I didn’t think someone would actually go out of their way to throw some outrage my way re: what I choose as my writer’s label. But they did – you can read about it here. And just the other day in a totally innocuous public thread (where I had mentioned that I’m writing a novella) a complete stranger made fun of my “novella” (the scare quotes were his). Now, I must admit that I was rather taken aback about this, but then I had a little chuckle when I told my husband about; he was mightily impressed that this person thought I’d invented a new category of novel. Indeed, I may well add this to my CV. Anyway, the point is that even though I *think* I have a pretty good handle on minimizing overwhelm via social media, every now and then they’ll always be someone who pops up and gives you a whack on the head. The key thing is to not feed the troll. (Better to use the energy on writing a blog post about them…!) 

9. Group dynamics. Groups can be a great way of meeting with like-minded people who are working on similar projects. But sometimes groups become so large and cumbersome, or your interests change and shift so that you forget why you ever joined in the first place. Stay in groups that are positive and supportive, and quietly leave the ones that are noisy and no longer chime with you. 

10. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (Kurt Vonnegut). As with any human interaction, kindness is key. Social media has the power to amplify the unkindnesses and to make this HSP sometimes want to run a mile. But there are so many kind people out there. It’s worth finding your tribe online to connect with them and to share some much-needed philia. Just remember to be kind to yourself. Sometimes it’s a kindness to stay away if the noise is too overwhelming or you find yourself slipping into the horrible black hole of life/career comparison, outrage and unkindness.

 

Yorkshire puddings, photo by Marija Smits

Homemade Yorkshire puddings – now a staple of our mealtimes since a lovely, inspiring writer friend posted about her fond memories of this delicious comfort food. (I’d only ever previously bought ready made – and they’re really not as good as homebaked.)

 

So… for the time being I’m sticking with social media (with the above guidelines) but I do remind myself that this can always be reviewed. Social media is a tool just like any other man-made tool. And it’s worth reminding myself of that. It’s simply one way of communicating with other people. But there are other less overwhelming communication tools out there – remember the telephone? Letter writing? When I can I try to phone friends and colleagues or write; I find these ways of communicating enriching rather than overwhelming and I always appreciate getting phone calls and letters back.

I would love to hear from others HSPs about how they handle social media and to compare notes! (p.s. I don’t have a smartphone and don’t receive social media notifications in my email inbox. Another thing that helps me cope.)

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn

Like ice-cream, every summer holiday has its own particular “flavour”. Now that both my children have returned to school and I’m back from doing the morning school run I’m reflecting on the flavour of the six weeks that have just now passed.

There’s been a lot of sweetness and fun, particularly when on the odd occasion (they do happen!) that both my children have got on well and simply got on and played imaginative games. With the upcoming Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, which I’m excited about, we’ve been listening to Queen a lot, so impromptu rock concerts have been the thing… Oh, and we discovered that the lyrics to ‘We Are The Champions’ are very flexible and can be rewritten to suit any and every occasion… cue youngest belting out “We want our doughnuts, my friends”. You get the picture.

There’s been work too, as I made sure that both my children did their daily ‘mummy school’. (Basically, each summer they get to set their own timetable – which they love doing – and then I help them with my own version of schoolwork. It ensures that they haven’t completely forgotten their maths or English basics so that they feel more confident about their lessons when they do return to school.)

 

Dirty Bertie 'Rats'

 

The Dirty Bertie series of books have been the books of the holidays. I think we’ve almost exhausted them all, but we’re still keeping our eyes open for more in the series at the library.

It’s been hot. Ice-cream meltingly-hot. Well, apart from the one week we went to Wales when hot was suddenly unfashionable…

Coffee shop stop-offs (to help keep me caffeinated and semi-alert), trips to the park, float fun sessions at the swimming pool, as well as visiting charity shops to buy cheap DVDs for various movie nights have also been regular, welcome features. And cat Top Trumps and doodling games have kept us busy when we’ve been off the screen (we all love playing Minecraft and watching YouTube).

There have been some worries though too. Mostly about what the new year at school would be like (my eldest making the move up to secondary school). Cue lots of empathy from me and her dad, but also lots of reassurance. And chats about how life is a lot about accepting change, but also how change can bring about new growth.

Thankfully, my daughter’s first day at school (yesterday) seemed to go well, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that “big” school will continue to be a positive experience.

 

Coloured pencils, photo by Marija Smits

 

Obviously, the autumn days will bring us more cool weather and shorter days, and although I always bemoan the fading of the light, I am feeling excited about the season ahead. I have lots to keep me busy: my publishing work, my new Book Stewards blog, as well as a whole bunch of writing projects to be getting on with (mostly to do with science fiction and fantasy). Also, I have plenty of new books I’m aching to read and I have a desire to get out my colouring pencils again…

Wishing you all the best for your new season start!