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!

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The End of an Era

Four years ago today I published a post about the bittersweet experience of watching our children go through certain milestones. You see, I’d seen a mother, sitting in her car outside of school, crying secret tears, because of an important milestone – the end of her child’s time at primary school.

At the time, I felt as though I could empathise with the mother, but I also knew that I was a very long time away from going through what she was going through. But you know what, time passed, as it has a habit of doing, and four years went by in a blur. This July, it was me crying in the playground with my daughter who was leaving primary school behind her forever.

I think that particularly as we’re HSPs, my daughter and myself found this transition tough. We’re not fans of change. We prefer the familiar, the comfortable; of knowing what to expect from everyday life. And so any approaching change has the potential to feel scary, daunting and very overwhelming.

I’ve noticed a pattern though. We tend to get majorly upset beforehand as we run through all the horrible possibilities of the future event or change, whatever, in our minds, but that when it actually comes to the event, the change, the experience, we get through it okay. We sometimes even manage to enjoy it and perform well, getting used to the new situation in the process.

I think this is a useful insight – a helpful reminder that pre-processing the change (though it may be upsetting) helps to mentally prepare us. It also tells us another useful thing. That: I can do this. And that: she can do this.

As the prospect of secondary school looms before us – and along with it a whole new host of routines and rules and children and teachers to get used to, I know it has the potential of being overwhelming, of making us uncomfortable, even scorching us with its all-too-intense fire. But I will remind myself that intense heat and pressure don’t always burn or decimate. Sometimes they are necessary for new growth. Sometimes they produce beautiful things.

 

Finding Your Style

Creatives, particularly those newer to their craft, sometimes despair that there’s nothing truly original left to create – that it’s all been done, or said, before. Usually, they are swiftly reassured by a more experienced writer/artist/crafter etc. that although it has all been done before, it hasn’t been done by them, with their own unique style.

Ah ha, ponders the earnest creative. I like that! My style. MY style. MY STYLE.

But, oh heck. What is my style? Do I even have a style? Do I have to go looking? And when will I find it?!

The good thing is, right from the word go, you have a style. You don’t think about your ‘style’ when talking to someone. You just talk to them in your own voice and use the words that instantly come to your mouth. Just like when you pick up a pencil and begin to write, or doodle. There it is. There’s your style. It’s evident in your handwriting, there in the shapes and patterns that automatically form beneath your pen.

 

It_takes_courage_quote_e_e_cummings

My handwriting. It’s very me.

 

But here’s the problem. We *whisper it* sometimes don’t like our own style. Now, that’s not too problematic, at first, as long as we’re still brave enough and passionate enough to keep learning and practising our craft and trying out different things. And a good deal of practise, particularly in the early stages of an apprenticeship, involves copying the greats. Through reading, writers learn about the style of other writers. It subconsciously seeps into the self and sometimes comes out in our writing. And artists, through viewing other artists’ works, are often inspired to paint/craft/sculpt in that particular artist’s style. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s an important first step in a creative person’s apprenticeship. However, once it tips over from well-meant copy-as-practise into plagiarism or forgery, well, a line has very obviously been crossed.

As you work your way through your apprenticeship, your own style will most definitely emerge and make itself known to you. You will start to spot things about your own work. Certain similarities, certain motifs, certain ticks. Like how a lot of your poems are about unspoken love, or nature, or grief. Or how you’re always painting butterflies, or cats. (Cats are good. I even like drawing their bottoms.)

 

Into the Woods by Marija Smits

This print is available to buy in my Etsy store, you know…

 

Sometimes, you may receive feedback about your work which tells you something important about your style. I write science fiction short stories and I’ve had reviewers compare my stories to those of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem (most likely because of the subject matter, not my literary greatness, I hasten to add). Of my prize-winning story ‘His Birth’, the judge Adam Roberts said: “This is written with a plainness and restraint that helps to magnify its (deliberately) grotesque central conceit… The whole story is neatly constructed…”. And one reviewer said of my story ‘The Death of the Grapevine’ (published in Café Stories) that it was written in “brisk controlled language”.

Now, at first, this bemused me, because in my head my prose is lyrical and complex and full of literary loveliness. But you know what, they’re right. On re-reading my stories, yes, I am brisk and controlled. But I somehow rebel against this, because it seems… not literary enough? Not good enough?

Ah well, I can’t do much about it. Because, you see, here’s the thing. It’s my style. And it’s better to embrace it than to fight it.

As with my art. Oh, how I’d love to be able to create grand hyper-realistic paintings in acrylics, or stunning colour-rich abstracts. But you know what, I’ve realized something recently. Something that I’ve known for most of my life, in fact. I like neatness. I like the neatness and control that a fine liner pen gives me. However, I also love the freedom, the sheer lack-of-control nature of free-flowing watercolour paint. I began to put the two together recently, and you know what, I kind of liked what I made. So, who knows, maybe that’s my style too.

 

Zen fox by Marija Smits

Zen fox by Marija Smits

 

The fun is in the finding. The skill is in the honing.

What’s your style?

On Failing my Best Friend (Again and Again)

 

I have this friend. Actually, she’s my best friend. We go way back, like, to before primary school.

 

When I was a child our friendship was free and easy. We explored the world together, dreamt big dreams, and simply played the summer days away. We were the best team ever.

 

But then teenagehood beckoned. I became more self-aware, self-conscious. And critical of others. I started to judge my friend, and secretly thought her rather ugly and stupid. I often wished her away; wished for a better-looking friend, a “cooler” friend. Yet through all my harsh unspoken (and sometimes spoken) criticism, she stuck by me. Even when, at university, I started to abuse her – making her smoke, drink and dabble in drug-taking (God, what I put her through!) – she still stuck by me.

 

Thankfully, when I met my husband-to-be, my life calmed down. I started to be nicer to my friend. Slowly, I began to recall our early years of play; the fun we’d had on those summer days, climbing trees, running through fields full of wildflowers, playing hide-and-seek. My friend forgave me my shameful behaviour, and supported me through my twenties; was happy for me when I got married and then became pregnant.

 

Actually, she was amazing throughout my pregnancy and birth. And especially brililant when breastfeeding was a challenge. She got me through the tough days; told me that that I could do it. That I could breastfeed my baby. And she was right. I did breastfeed both my children. For years.

 

And even in that time of early motherhood when I was often bad-tempered and crotchety through lack of sleep, she was simply there, quietly empowering and supporting me, every step of the way.

 

But now that those years have passed, and I’ve found my creative groove through my publishing work and writing and art, I’ve taken her untiring support for granted again. Pushed her beyond her capabilities by making her work too much, stay up too late; forcing her to eat and drink more than she wants to.

 

This time, she has said a resounding, ‘No. Enough is enough.’

 

This has come as quite a surprise to me. But it’s forced me to really look at her, to realize that, like me, she’s only getting older. At 42, it’s time to treat her with the respect she deserves.

 

Because my best friend is irreplaceable, unique.

 

My best friend is my body.

 

And she is amazing.

 

An Update on an Old Intention (aka How Ideas Mutate and Grow)

 

The Moon's Sorrowful Face, by Marija Smits

Reaching for the moon? (Art: The Moon’s Sorrowful Face, by Marija Smits)

 

In October 2016 I did something unusual: I posted an ‘Intention’ (note the capital I) on my blog. The Intention was to put together a book – a collection of short stories in the SFF genre with the final aim of getting it published.

At the time of declaring my Intention I knew I was a long way off completing the book because I didn’t have enough  superb short stories to go in it, but I thought that it may take me (the reasonable time of) a year or so to finish it. Um, I was wrong…! For a start, I thought the collection would contain fantasy and science fiction stories, but a discussion with some friends on Facebook led me to the conclusion that keeping those two related, though very different, genres separate would be best. I do know of some writers – who are absolutely at the top of their game and winning awards for their writing – who mix and match genres in their collections, but I’m not (currently) one of those writers. Besides, the more I thought about it, the more the genre separation idea appealed.

So I started off down a new route: one which involved writing and collating more sci-fi stories. And having had a little publishing success in that area, it confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing by concentrating on that one genre for the time being.

So far so good. The body of work was growing. And buoyed by the lovely members of my crit group (as well as my husband’s ever-constant encouragement) I felt that things were progressing. But then, at the start of this year, I saw that one of my favourite indie presses – Unsung Stories – had an open submissions window. They were on the lookout for novels or interlinked short story collections. Now, my novel (or possibly novella) was/is way off being finished, but my sci-fi collection… it was almost ready. But it wasn’t interlinked. And I had never meant it to be linked/interlinked. But it could be linked because there were so many similar themes…  I knew I’d never make the deadline, but the ‘linked collection’ idea didn’t go away. If anything, it has taken on new life and grown in my head – to the point where I now need to add lots more stories to the book because it has become this vast, sprawling, very weird thing indeed. (A little like Cloud Atlas, perhaps?!)

So that’s where I am. I now have a novel-cum-linked short story collection in my head, which is only partially written. I will roll with that for the time being and see where it takes me… So my only intention now is TO FINISH IT!*

 

*Watch this space/wish me luck!

Luke Skywalker’s Midlife Crisis

 

antastic building in the desert - photo by leshiy985/Shutterstock

Photo by leshiy985/Shutterstock

 

A New Hope (the first of the original Star Wars trilogy) was first screened in cinemas in 1977. I was a one-year-old at the time. Throughout the eighties in the UK it was pretty much a staple of Christmas TV, so I would’ve been between 8 and 11 years old when I first saw it. So there I was, an impressionable pre-teen, and in love. Luke Skywalker was the first person I became limerent for, and boy was it confusing! I have a very distinct memory of being at home when my parents were throwing a party and walking around in a kind of love-induced swoon. There were lots of adults about, eating and drinking and chatting, and all I could think about was Luke Skywalker, and the burning ache in my chest that the image of his face produced in me. What was this strange, intense sensation, I wondered? It was, of course, limerence.

Another memory. We were in Spain for our summer holiday. Star Wars was being shown on an outdoor screen. The whitewashed walls of the Spanish villas, the dry heat and sand, all made me feel as though I was actually there, in Tatooine. There was something very magical about that screening (although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate exactly what at the time). And there was Luke Skywalker. The hero. Someone to fall in love with, but also… someone I could relate to.

Back home in England, living in suburbia, life an endless round of getting up, going to school, coming home from school, I understood Luke’s dissatisfaction with his dull life of farming. When was something going to happen to me? When would I be starting on my own hero’s journey?

Later, I cursed myself for wanting more of life. For wanting excitement, for wanting to grow up sooner rather than later. Because, in a way, my own hero’s journey began with a death. My father’s death, to be specific. And when that life-changing event happened I very much wished I could unwish my previous wish for something to happen. Remember – be careful what you wish for. It might just come true.

Throughout university, further studies and work, Star Wars was always there. A comforting reminder of a happy childhood. Of dreaming about other worlds. Of a hero battling adversity. Doing the right thing at all costs.

The prequels came and went in my twenties. I watched them, of course, but for me the magic just wasn’t there. Was it because of the actual craft of the films? The sometimes impossible CGI? The new characters? The sometimes dodgy storytelling, the ropey dialogue? Or maybe I couldn’t connect with the films because I was older…? I’d experienced real life, after all. And these films had very little to say to me.

A decade or so passed. I continued on my own heroine’s journey, motherhood the next stage of it

The third trilogy – the films that dealt with the years after The Return of the Jedi – was about to happen. Now this was exciting! We were, at last, going to find out what happened to Luke Skywalker. I’d get to see how my childhood hero was doing. What great things he’d achieved.

The Force Awakens came and went. Okay, no magic there. But it was a fun film, the new characters pretty cool. Having a female lead, Rey, was a breath of fresh air, but I felt her to be ever so… one-dimensional. And incredibly capable. Good for her, but I couldn’t really relate to her.

We only got a glimpse of Luke Skywalker at the end. I wanted to cheer, to whoop, when he appeared on screen. There was so much expectation as he was presented with his old light saber. Here was the hero, the hero of my childhood, and he was going to be marvellous (when things really got going in the next film).

But then, last year, The Last Jedi came out. I suspect that many other midlifers like me, were excited. Expectant. But, for me – for many – the film failed to deliver. Social media was awash with opinions. I read article after article. Interview after interview. Mark Hamill hadn’t been happy with Luke’s new story (no surprise there). I wasn’t happy. Other people weren’t happy, although some were. People argued. As what seems to be the norm in this “age of outrage”, deep reflection and nuance got lost.

So, as usual, I reflected on the film, took some time; came to some conclusions of my own. I thought some of the new characters were endearing, interesting, full of potential. The film visually impressive. But with my writer’s hat on the storyline was, um, problematic, shall we say? But these were asides to the real issue: Luke’s story.

So, on the assumption that approximately 25 (Earth years) have passed since we last saw Luke, what did he actually do during those years? Well, we know that he founded a school for young Jedi. Taught them. That his powerful nephew came to his school (about 15 years into his teaching career) and Luke had concerns… which led to a crucial moment of potential action (coupled with fearful indecision, hesitation) which plunged the whole galaxy, apparently, into turmoil. His school was destroyed, his whole belief system destroyed, and he became a recluse for the next decade.

In short, Luke goes through a midlife crisis and does not deal with it terribly well. In the film, “Luke the recluse” is the worst kind of teenage cliché – he is dismissive, stubborn, angry, uncommunicative.

This is a man who, in the original trilogy, learnt control, patience. When to strike, when to not strike. In The Last Jedi he has unlearnt all his learning. The hero who went on to mentor other Jedi is now a stroppy, sullen teenager. He is stuck in midlife, permanently in crisis. Way to go Luke. (Or rather, way to go screenwriters.) There will be some that argue that at the end of the film, all has come good. Luke, the hero, has returned. I’m open to that idea. But all the stuff before… no. Just no.

As a midlifer who has experienced challenges, crises, whatever you want to call them, and who will no doubt continue to have to ride stormy seas in the future, I do not want to see my childhood hero unable to cope with the hard stuff. I need to see him grow and face new challenges with maturity and wisdom. I still need him to be my mentor. He’s been teaching other Jedi. Where has all that experience gone? What has all his life amounted to?

Of course, it is just a film. Yes, but also no. Star Wars plays into the collective unconscious. It is full of archetypes. The hero’s journey. All things that speak to each one of us at a deep, fundamental level. So when a beloved character acts out of character in a film that means so much to so many people, it jars.

But this is out of my hands. Our hands. Maybe us midlifers need to move on, accept that our hero of the original trilogy has long-vanished; that this latest trilogy means so much more to the younger generations than it does to us; to allow them their own magic (which can maybe only happen in one’s formative years). We have other stories to look to. Other archetypes, other, perhaps older, characters to invest in. To look to for guidance as we move into the next phase of our lives and see our own children grow and mature and take centre stage. Of course those characters are there. Surely, they’ve always been there. Thankfully, the movie industry appears to be more open to other characters. To older characters. But, still, we may need to seek them out. They are there. In our lives. In the books we read. Maybe overlooked, but still there. Patient. Waiting for us to unearth them. Let us discover them. Let us find a new hope.

Prose for Thought

The Dread of the Tax Return (especially if you’re an HSP)

Cartman doing taxes, photo by Marija Smits

You gotta respect the authoritay.

So… January has come and gone, and with it the deadline for filing personal tax returns. For various reasons, which I won’t go into here, I ended up in a bit of a mad panic filing my return on the day before the 31st January deadline. I hadn’t planned on doing it so late, but that’s the way it turned out. As I felt my chest tightening, frustration gnawing at my throat, I sort of stepped outside my body, looked at myself in an objective way and asked: Why are you so stressed? You’ll have to have a good think about that one day. Write it down. Figure it out. (The two are interchangeable nowadays.) It may help.

            Now that it’s February – ah! beautiful February – I can put down into words my thoughts on the matter. It will: a) be useful for me in the future and b) may be of help to others.

Some observations about the actual process of filing tax returns:

  • HMRC, a governmental authority, is, in many ways, an “authority figure”. Rather like a great big God (complete with flowing white beard) who lives in the sky. Or Big Brother watching you. Or a strict Victorian patriarch who must be obeyed. Or a faceless, voiceless, disembodied entity who hovers above and behind one’s head, just out of sight.
  • There is a deadline for filing returns. A penalty awaits those who fail to file their returns on time.
  • The form is long and involved. Like (to quote Eric Cartman) “hella” long. It is full of financialese, and incomprehensible to most “ordinary” people.
  • Sometimes just getting through “security” (and all the associated texts to mobiles/letters to old addresses/chanting various incantations in just the right order, to have the pleasure of even beginning to file the return) is a challenge/mystery in itself.

Some observations about HSPs:

  • HSPs are (obviously) very sensitive to changes in stress levels. HSPs like things to be calm, quiet and not overwhelming/over arousing (and I’m not using the word ‘arousing’ in a sexual sense here! Just in a general, sensory overload way). Yet even thinking about HMRC waiting for me to file my return brings me out in a cold sweat. I believe that HSPs have a particular sort of fearful respect for authority figures – which, in part, comes from our high level of conscientiousness. Doing the “wrong” thing i.e. not filing the return on time, very much strikes at our moral compass, our integrity, almost like a physical pain, and so the idea of not filing the return, and doing something wrong can bring about panic. Also, HSPs don’t want to displease the authority figure; to anger someone so powerful. We just want everyone to get on, be happy, be calm, because that makes us feel calm.
  • For some, time pressure can help them focus; bring about brilliant work. Not so much for HSPs. And especially not for something like filing our tax returns. We hear the clock tick tocking, every second bringing us closer to the deadline and a potential telling off from the Daddy of All Taxes. Panic sets in. Clear thinking goes out the window.
  • And what do you need most when faced with a series of questions written in financialese – a language us freelance creatives only ever encounter once a year? Yep, that’s right. Clear thinking. (Which has already gone out the window if you’re getting even a smidgeon too close to the deadline for your liking.)
  • And… finally. All this panic (which results in hand wringing, hair pulling, teeth grinding, pleas to the financial gods-that-be etc.) most certainly reinforces the idea in one’s head that one is not a competent, intelligent and rational person who is even capable of filling in a form. Hell, you’re not even sure you’re worthy of appearing before the Grand High Overlord of All Things Tax-related, you’re that much of a lowly maggot. Cue an existential crisis. Or at the very least, crushing despair and a lowering of self-confidence.

 

So, have I got any tips for patching up this egregious mismatch between HSPs and filing tax returns? You betcha!

  1. Get an employer who will give you a PAYE tax code and remove all tax filing responsibilities away from you. Seriously, I often long for an employer-knight in shining armour to take away all my tax troubles – although past experience has told me that being in a bad job is simply bad, bad, bad. THE BOSS may well very quickly dump his/her shining armour to become the new dreaded overload. Sadly, good bosses are few and far between.

 

  1. If no. 1 isn’t an attractive-looking option, or not at option at all for whatever reason, do consider employing someone to take away the stress of the tax return. Even the spectacularly useless Bernard from Black Books wisely took on someone to deal with his taxes. Brilliant comedy ensued. If this option is too costly either find a patient and financially-minded friend who is willing to help you out (either for free or in exchange for some of your brilliant art) or…

  1. Put on your I-can-do-this superhero cloak and prepare for battle! Ideally, you’ll be needing to enter into battle 3-6 months before the deadline to make it as stress-free as possible. Remember, you can actually save your return as you go (it does work, I’ve checked) and do it in stages.

 

  1. Take screenshots of every single page of the tax return as you go (with your answers within). As these will be timed and dated you will end up with a series of screenshots that take you from beginning to end. (I’ve found that the PDF/HTML completed return that HMRC provides you with at the end is baffling/gobbledygook, so screenshots page by page are better.) Then file them away safely. This will hopefully be incredibly useful for next year when you find yourself stumped by any particular question (that’s as long as year on year your tax return remains pretty consistent).

 

  1. Stock up on chocolate/tea or whatever takes your fancy while you do the task. Keep giving yourself treats and it may just trick your mind into thinking that you’re doing something pleasant.

 

  1. Keep reminding yourself that despite any tax return problems you encounter, you are in fact a worthwhile, confident, intelligent and (mostly) rational being, and that YOU HAVE GOT THIS. And if all else fails? Overcome your fear and unwarranted reasoning that you don’t want to waste anyone at HMRC’s time with silly questions and give them a call. Often, a very nice person will help guide you through the form. And if you get stuck in a phone cue, a jangly tune rattling in your ear, grab a pencil or pen, start doodling or start writing a poem or short story. Or sing along. Or rant. Or practice your deep breathing. Who knows, you may end up so blissed out you may start levitating.*

 

To recap. You are brilliant. And intelligent. And worthy enough for the financial gods-that-be. And… YOU HAVE GOT THIS.

 

*Not guaranteed.