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.

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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!

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.

 

 

Imagination, Inspiration, and Ursula Le Guin

01 2018 Ursula Le Guin books, photo by Marija Smits

 

Since my husband is a scientist and I’m an ex-scientist, we both love science fiction (reading and writing it). We often discuss science fiction and enjoy having a good old rant, or rave, about the plausibility of the science within the stories. When I’m reviewing science fiction for Shoreline of Infinity I very much consider the book from a scientist’s viewpoint, and am strict about the plausibility of the science. (Though this occasionally gives me the wobbles – the tame woman in me not wanting to be disliked for saying something not 100% pleasing to the masses. My wild woman sighs and roars off the tameness that has a habit of clinging on.) Just the other week my husband, wanting to give me some encouragement, emailed me two of Ursula Le Guin’s articles – about plausibility in imaginative fiction and literary snobbery and, once again, I was eminently comforted by the fact that such a great writer continued to be such a passionate champion for the SFF genre (as well as a champion for the importance of plausibility in the genre).

So when social media became awash with the news of her death, I, like many, was saddened by the news. People were sharing her poetry, snippets of her writing; what her books had meant to them. These quotes stood out for me:

 

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality…

…Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula Le Guin from her speech at the National Book Awards

 

To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it. Ursula Le Guin from Steering the Craft

 

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add to what others have said (indeed, I questioned whether I should even write this blog post), but I had an urge to say something. To write something. For as a woman who writes science fiction, who passionately believes in the genre and the importance of plausibility within the genre, and who wholeheartedly believes that the act of creating something requires a “surrendering”, I wanted to say ‘Farewell’ and ‘Thank you’ to Le Guin. She will continue to inspire me and countless others.

The Appeal of Halloween to an HSP Who Doesn’t Like Horror

I’ve never liked horror – films or books – and the few famous films in that genre that I did watch when I was in my teens/early twenties (Silence of the Lambs, Seven) pretty much freaked me out so much that I quickly realized that although a lover of fantasy and science fiction, horror was never going to be my thing. Two decades later I haven’t changed my mind on that. Which is why I think my husband gets confused by my love of Halloween. So recently, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about Halloween that I enjoy so much. This is what I came up with:

1) Halloween means different things to different people. Obvious, I know, but as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) I am really not into Halloween as ‘night of horror’ (or the accompanying gruesome, horror film-derived masks/costumes, or horror film watching). But, linked as it is to Samhain, what fascinates me about Halloween is that it is considered to be:

“…a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld thinned. This meant the Aos Sí (pronounced /iːˈʃiː/ ees-SHEE), the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, could more easily come into our world and were particularly active.” From Wikipedia.

As a lover of all things fae, uncanny, otherworldly, (and the pleasantly spooky, but not horrifying, spine-tingling that otherworldliness affords) this is pretty much my thing.

 

Spirit of the Night, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Spirit of the Night, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

 

2) Dressing up! As an HSP I hate getting out of my comfy tracky bottoms and into something… less comfortable. But as a lover of art and all things beautiful I relish the idea of ‘me as art’ i.e. transforming myself into something otherworldly. My kids enjoy this bit too.

3) Pumpkin carving. Another chance to get creative, but with fruit! (And to also light lots of cheery candles.)

 

Pumpkin eating pumpkin, photo by Marija Smits

Pumpkin eating pumpkin, photo by Marija Smits

 

4) Halloween baking. Over the years I’ve made my fair share of pumpkin soups, stews and pasta dishes (not to mention the sweet treats). Again, my creative side likes the opportunity to cook something I normally wouldn’t cook.

5) The chance to chat to neighbours. Okay, as a prefer-to-stick-to-the-comfort-of-my-own-home HSP I’d rather stay in my house than take my kids trick-or-treating, but going trick-or-treating does push me out of my comfort zone to actually talk to people. It helps me to put a ‘face to a house’ (if you see what I mean) and to remember that the majority of people are actually pretty kind and go out of their way to make little kids feel like the stars of the (Halloween) show. One lady always gives us apples as well as sweets, and I’m pleased to say that my kids seem to value her jewel-red apples as much as the sweets!

6) Recently, I’ve enjoyed finding out more about the Day of the Dead (my daughter’s been particularly fascinated by this) and making links between all the global Halloween/All Souls Day festivals as well as Skeleton Woman/Lady Death, from Women Who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Skeleton Woman being another facet of the Wild Woman). It’s important to acknowledge the ‘life, death, life’ aspect of our lives, and nature, and Halloween is one of the few festivals to do that.

7) A chance to play party games (such as apple bobbing) or to put on magic shows, shadow puppet shows… anything not too scary suits me just fine!

8) It reminds me of my childhood… and dressing up and going out trick-or-treating with my big sister and her friends. I felt ‘very big and grown up’ to able to do this, and I remember it as being fun (it helped too that my parents treated the whole thing as one big child-friendly party). I think I was nearly always a black cat (it was an easy costume to put together), which suited me fine, because cats are great.

 

Our new cat, Mitsie, photo by Marija Smits

 

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Gifts of Nature; Summer Reminiscing

Today is a bright day, a glorious day, and I am glad of the autumn sunshine since, lately, the world has felt very dark.

My children are on half-term holiday this week and I am slowing down a bit workwise so that I can spend time with them, help them with homework, and catch up with some much-needed cleaning and mending. I’ve also been playing around with inks and had various ideas for art pieces zipping around my head – well it is Inktober! – but more on that another time. However, today, I want to reflect on something else – another time that felt slow yet quick, hard but easy, intense yet rewarding… the six weeks of the summer holidays.

Sometimes, I feel that documenting the “small” things is unimportant, trivial, but when things get dark, as they are apt to do when we are so overwhelmed by information, then focussing on the “small” things can be of great comfort. Nature, in particular, gives of its healing gifts so freely… and it never ceases to amaze me how getting out into nature, a park, or simply working in the garden – weeding, pruning, digging, all things that are intrinsically “wild” – immediately makes me feel so much better. Calmer, grounded, “more me”.

We have a splendid cooking apple tree in our back garden, and this year, I remembered that the apples are ready for picking earlier rather than later, so me and the children spent quite a lot of time up the tree, and up the ladder, harvesting apples. (Our cat also had fun following after us!) As my husband hadn’t pruned the tree for a few years we had a bumper crop, like buckets and buckets. So we gave away buckets and buckets to passers-by, and in doing so, I was rewarded with the knowledge that others would be cooking and enjoying the apples too. Hating to see good food go to waste, I did my best – I really did! – to use up all the apples we did keep. I made apple cake, apple crumble, apple flapjack, stewed apple and no doubt various other puddings that I’ve already forgotten about. The kids picked blackberries from the local and ever-bountiful bush and so we also had apple and blackberry crumble a few times.

 

Cooking apples, photo by Marija Smits

Cooking apples, photo by Marija Smits

 

This summer, I’ll also remember as the summer of ice cream. My son decided that he wanted to set up an ice cream shop, so I borrowed an ice cream maker from a friend, Googled recipes, bought ingredients, and then we were good to go. We pretty much made everyone’s favourite – mint choc chip, rum and raisin (somehow my husband and I managed to vanish that one pretty quickly!), banana and blueberry, and raspberry. I’d wanted to make an apple crumble ice cream too (basically, apple puree with cooked crumble topping swirled in) but never got around to doing it. I also wanted to experiment with non-dairy milks: coconut cream, almond milk etc. but ran out of time. But, as I keep telling myself, these ideas will keep, they’re simply on hold.

 

Ice cream shop, photo by Marija Smits

Ice cream shop, photo by Marija Smits

 

The summer holidays were also when I did “Mummy School” i.e. a bit of reading, writing, maths and art most weekdays so that the kids weren’t too out of the loop for when they were back at school. They (mostly) enjoyed this, particularly the making-of-the-timetable bit, although I know they would’ve happily foregone it for the lure of the screen…

Creativity-wise, I read and wrote a bit, but as I had a real longing to work with ink, I picked up my dip pen and started copying pictures… anything, really, that I liked the look of. And as the Scooby Snacks card game was another firm favourite this summer holiday, I ended up doing some copies of the baddies from the pack of the cards. (By the way, I was sorely disappointed by the lack of obviously female baddies in the card pack – which I often mentioned to my husband and children. So they challenged me to come up with my own female baddie to add to the deck. Watch this space…!)

 

Scooby Snacks card game, photo by Marija Smits

Scooby Snacks card game, photo by Marija Smits

 

I’ll admit that towards the end of the holiday I felt like I was wading through treacle as lots of things (workwise and writing-wise) were being put off until the eventual “back to school” and the quiet and time it affords me. But, overall, I felt that we were productive in our relaxation and work. And as our county may be changing the times of our holidays next school year (not to mention the fact that this year is my big girl’s last year at primary school) the summer holidays felt particularly special.

And so now to autumn, the end of the hanging baskets (compost and flowers all a gift from my kind and green-fingered father-in-law), and the last of the tomato crop.

 

Tomatoes, photo by Marija Smits

Tomatoes, photo by Marija Smits

 

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On Feeling Invisible

Today, I am having a low day, a sad day. Today is a day to remind myself that there is a rhythm to life, a rhythm to creativity. It is a day for me to be mindful of the fact that energy ebbs and flows. Today is simply a low day. It will pass; these days always pass, but I wanted to document this so that when this happens again I will be comforted by this reminder. Also, if anyone else ever feels like this, I want to say this: I hear you.

Invisible Woman, by Marija Smits

Invisible Woman, by Marija Smits

Today is a day when I’ve felt as though I’m invisible. A few tiny tiny things (in the grand scheme of things) have occurred to make me feel like the character Amos Hart from the movie ‘Chicago’ who memorably sang the heart-achingly sad ‘Mr Cellophane’. A friend I was conversing with this morning wandered off mid-conversation to chat with another group of people. My inbox is continuing to remain desolately free of meaningful emails, although I’ve sent off many emails in the past fortnight (both professional and personal). Friend requests via Facebook of people I admire and would like to get to know better (though not in a creepy way, of course!) are just not happening. A Twitter conversation I started the other day trailed off into nothingness… My blog stats tell me that no one (well, okay, few people) are reading my blog. I am also failing to “see” my own work. It’s all rubbish, it’s all a waste of time. And most mothers can probably relate to this: all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, admin work, shopping, present-buying, birthday party-organizing, caring and loving that goes on unseen and unacknowledged by society (and sometimes friends and family too). Only a (work) rejection (for some funding) today made me feel something: Ouch!

I have to remind myself that other people have lots going on in their lives; to be patient, open-hearted. I have to remind myself that I am also guilty of forgetting to reply to friends’ emails (or social media exchanges) and that there’s no malice in my oversight – just an overstuffed schedule and a holey memory (and possibly also embarrassment when I realize how much time has passed since they first contacted me!). In short, we are all human. Forgive me. Forgive them.

The trouble with feeling invisible – for an HSP at least – is that a commonly offered solution is to: Speak out! Make yourself heard! All very well if you’re an extrovert and/or have enough energy to assert. But when I feel low this feeling invisible thing is self-reinforcing. I am invisible, ergo, I must hide away. Sometimes, hiding away (maybe with a large tub of ice-cream to watch a movie, or to play Minecraft, or whatever – at least the villagers interact with me!) is just the right thing to do. But there’s not always a chance to do this, and of course work, and household chores etc. etc. are an impediment to hiding away. And sometimes, hiding away can seem a bit scary, because there’s always the worry, Will I ever come out of this?

The answer is always, always this: YES. You will come out of this. There is a rhythm to life, a rhythm to creativity. Have trust in the rhythm of your body, the rhythm of the feminine wild. Do what you have to do in the “low” – hunker down, cry, make yourself heard – and then, when you are ready, come out once more to shine.

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