On Boundaries & Being a Minecraft Mum

 

Last year, when I finally got to bed on Christmas Eve I had the sudden realization that we had come to the end of an era. You see, waiting under the tree there was a certain present for our children. The certain present had lots of circuits, a screen and a keyboard. And my husband was going to put Minecraft on it. I just knew that from Christmas Day onwards everything would change…

 

Minecraft books, photo by Marija Smits

I’ve read all these books cover to cover. At least 10 times. (Photo, by Marija Smits.)

 

My husband and I had thought long and hard about this gift. For one thing, it was essential to get the kids off my laptop which was full of work stuff. Also, my eldest daughter was being asked to do more and more computer-based homework. Third… well, Minecraft. Although I knew very little about it I could already see the appeal. As a sandbox game it allows you to be creative and build all sorts, but there are also certain challenges/achievements to complete, as well as the chance to play in multiplayer mode with other people. This was going to blow our minds!

 

Creeper, by Marija Smits

A creeper. Not mind-blowing but he does blow stuff up.

 

Four months down the line I can confirm that the Minecraft era is all that I expected it to be: 1) a lot of fun 2) highly creative 3) an educational experience – it’s been a steep learning curve but now myself and my children pretty much know everything there is to know about Minecraft: mining, crafting, mobs, fighting, farming, building, enchanting, potion-making, the Nether, the End. (There’s even some poetry in it! And a creepypasta in the form of the elusive Herobrine.) YouTubers I knew nothing about in the pre-Minecraft era are now household names: Mr Stampy Cat, iBallisticSquid, AmyLee. Stampy’s ‘hic-hic’ laugh is oft-mimicked.

These first 3 expectations are positive. So far, so good. Yet the fourth is not, for it is this: addictive.

So this is where the ‘boundaries’ bit comes in. It would seem that some people have a pre-disposition to addiction – in that they have a more sensitive reward system in place, and this, most likely coupled with a diminished ‘pause-to-check’ instinct, means that they are more vulnerable to addiction. And perhaps more likely to be risk-takers.

Addiction, as a topic, fascinates me, so it’s no wonder that addiction as a theme reoccurs in my short stories (one of these stories is to be published in a litmag this summer. Yay!). But it only feels like something I can view more dispassionately now, since I feel I have a better sense of my own addictive tendencies. (Though in the past [soft] substance addictions were an issue, my addictions are now internal rather than external. I know that I am only ever a few wobbly and perilously short steps away from OCD thoughts – which in the past have stolen hours, days, weeks, months from my life. And person addiction – aka limerence – is the other.) Also, having lived with a gambler for several years and had friends with alcoholic parents (as well as the requisite uni pals most definitely [and yet not] in control of their own chemical addictions) I feel as though I’ve got a bit of a handle on the issue. And TV programmes, branded with trashy titles such as: Help! I’m addicted to sex! (or food or social media or feet or whatever) actually make for an insightful (and fascinating) watch.

Anyway, back to boundaries. Obviously, computer games can be addictive. And I’ve noticed that my son finds it far more difficult to come away from the screen than my daughter. When it’s time to stop he complains and wheedles for just another 5 minutes. I do my best to always give him at least a 10 minute countdown, but still, it can be hard for him to stop. I can empathise. I have memories of playing Tetris over and over in a darkened room while outside the sun shone, and finding it very hard to detach from the screen. (And apparently, my husband, too, was a keen computer gamer in his youth.)

Still… empathy is good. It helps my son to know that I’m on his side. But also, boundaries are good. However, when I’m setting and enforcing boundaries, I always feel as though I’m being a big bad baddie. (Something that I think many women find tricky – saying ‘no’ and ‘enough’.) But I have to remind myself that boundaries are good. I’m actually a goody for imposing boundaries, because boundaries help us to cultivate personal integrity, and create wholeness, and also, they are necessary for healthy relationships: with ourselves, with each other and with our environment. They make for a healthy society.

Many adults already know what their boundaries are. For some it means zero alcohol. For others it means a certain limit on coffee. For those in a committed relationship it means a blanket ban on ‘friending’ exes or past lovers on Facebook. For children who love screen time it can mean making sure that there are time restrictions in place. (We also don’t have phones or screens in our bedrooms – I’m trying to ensure that bedroom = rest in their minds. I’ve also found that making sure that screens are off at least 2 hours before they go to bed is a big help with their sleep and temperament.)

Anyway, so far, Minecraft has been a positive in our life, but as usual, observing, reflecting and setting (and enforcing) boundaries on a day-to-day basis are paramount for something that has, like so many other apparently innocent things, the potential to become addictive.

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Women in Science

As we’re currently in British Science Week (10 – 19th March), I thought it the perfect opportunity to write about something close to my heart: women in science.

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Now, I used to be a woman in science, but then I left for all sorts of reasons, which I outlined in an earlier post. To clarify, it was not the science that was the issue, rather, a male-dominated environment (and the competitiveness, extrovertism and ‘blokey’ jokes that was a huge part of that environment). It was also a time when work email somehow allowed people (okay, let’s admit it – they were men!) to send pornographic images. At one university I worked at I walked past the odd computer screen seeing some things I’d much rather not have seen. This experience didn’t make me (one of about 5 women in a group with 20 men or so) feel so great about myself.

In addition, looking up the hierarchy, I could see that the female lecturers and researchers were clearly juggling so much – their careers and motherhood and trying to run a household, and, and… and still the male lecturers would make comments about the women ‘not pulling their weight’.

In conclusion: I did not love scientific research enough to continue in that career. And that is okay. I am glad I realized this sooner rather than later.

However, I am immensely thankful for the women who do love research and overcome all kinds of obstacles to pursue their research and excel in their specialism. But why is it that at the age of 40 (and even as an ex-scientist) I still find it difficult to name the contributions women have made to science? Once again, and as in so many fields of endeavour, women’s achievements in science have been overlooked, sidelined, ignored. Or been appropriated by men. In general, women scientists have been put on ‘mute’.

So when I came across this image on Facebook on International Women’s Day – from the excellent Compound Interest page – I was delighted to discover more women scientists. (Chemists, like me!)

 

And when I went to my local library the other day they had a wonderful display full of cards with inventions and discoveries by scientific women on them. Such as:

Stem cell research – Ann Tsukamoto

Kevlar – invented by Stephanie Kwolek

Semi-conductor theory/telecommunications research – Shirley Ann Jackson

The life raft – Maria Beasley

Computing – Grace Hopper

Solar-energy technology – Maria Telkes

This display was for International Women’s Day (or to call it by its other name – ‘Why Isn’t There An International Men’s Day’?). Sad but true, every year outraged men take to Twitter to wonder aloud Why oh why isn’t there a special day for men? Richard Herring, bless his heart, answers many, many of them to let them know that yes, there is an International Men’s Day. It’s on 19th November. He also encourages his followers/those interested in his cause to educate the incredulous to donate money to the charity Refuge).

And another good resource for women scientists I came across recently is Sheroes of History.

Having been a teacher (and now a parent) for a fair while now, I’m pretty sure that girls and young women have got the message that science is something that both sexes can excel at. But it cannot be overlooked that academia is very much an environment for the privileged white middle-class male. That’s not to say that boys and young men shouldn’t be encouraged to study science – they should be, it’s brilliant! It’s just that schools, universities and scientific companies need to look at their environment through the feminist (as well as racist) lens. How can we make academia more accessible to women? How can we keep mother scientists still involved in research if they don’t want to spend virtually all their waking hours away from their children? How can we get away from the competitiveness that so obviously suits highly-driven testosterone-fuelled men? Indeed, can scientific research be a cooperative endeavour? And why oh why must everything be measured by publication in the ‘big’ journals, Science, Nature et al.? Is this really where all the ‘good’ science is? Just as with poetry, there are the ‘big’ journals/magazines. That does not mean that the smaller literary magazines aren’t publishing just-as-good (if not better) poetry. They are!

Sadly, again, so much of the problems of academia come down to that monster, neoliberalism. Universities are more companies nowadays, the students the ‘customers’ – the power taken from academics and given to the bureaucrats and the private companies they fling money at. The people at the top enjoy six-figure salaries for formulating things like: strategic mission and the academic vision, innovative streamlining, the student-centred approach etc. while the academics (who are irreplaceable, because, let’s face it, how many of us have a good working knowledge of quantum mechanics, or crystallography or neuroplasticity or… or… ?) grind on, trapped between teaching, research and the huge amount of administrative tasks they have to complete. They do not enjoy six-figure salaries. And especially not if they’re women.

However, all that said, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. There are high-earning women at the top, just as there are high-earning men at the top. Check out this link if you want to know just what the heads of some unis pay themselves. I will add two words here that are appropriate: fat and cat. But as always, there are good stewards at the head of universities, who are perhaps worthy of their salary. And there are bad stewards at the top of many universities too, who are most certainly not worth of their salary. Also, there are women who thrive in a competitive environment. And those who do not. But the lower down the hierarchy you go the more likely you are to find women not negotiating for extra pay, not negotiating for better working conditions for themselves and their families, and not speaking out about inappropriate conduct or unprofessionalism of male colleagues.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, although I think it’s clear that separating business from academia is key. Commercialism is making science less science-y. And in these post-truth times, scientific rigour, objectivity and the pursuit of truth (no matter if that truth pains us) is absolutely vital. I also think that talking and writing about all the many women scientists of the past and today is also key in helping girls and women to know that science is something that they can really get involved in. And excel at. Lastly, we need to give young women the tools to assert for themselves so that they can make the changes to academia that are so badly needed to free it of capitalism’s grip so that it can become a true place of learning and creative investigation, irrespective of the student or teacher’s sex, skin colour, class or financial background.

 

My daughter's base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits

My daughter’s base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits (with thanks to Red Ted Art for the YouTube video on how to construct the volcano).

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The Power of Humour

So… these are dark times. Or so my Facebook and Twitter feed say. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump last Friday things have gotten a little crazy. There are many that I know who are fearful and scared. I am worried too. But before I succumb to fear I am going to be a ‘good’ scientist and watch and observe and think. When plunged into darkness it is best to remain calm and let your eyes acclimatize to the darkness. Shapes and forms and patterns will emerge. Even a little light.

There have been many positive things happening: the many Womens’ Marches and rallies, and organizations like ‘Hope Not Hate’ offering us ways to reach out and help one another. One of the simplest ones being: do a kind deed for someone today.

We all have our own ways to cope in turbulent times; I know that I tend to hunker down and look to my family and local community and see how I can help out. I also write and create art, which helps me, and (hopefully) others. Then there is the ultimate (healthy and 100% natural!) feel-good mood enhancer: humour.

I’m a serious person, and I probably don’t laugh enough. But laughing is rather wonderful, isn’t it? And of course it’s great for the body and soul.

There is a great chapter about the power of humour in difficult times in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ excellent book Women Who Run With The Wolves. If you haven’t got a copy of this book, please do yourself a favour and get it. It is simply an incredible and life-changing book.

 In laughter, a woman breathes fully, and when she does she begins to feel unsanctioned feelings. And what could those feelings be? Well, they turn out to not be feelings so much as relief and remedies for feelings, often causing the release of stopped-up tears or the reclamation of forgotten memories or the bursting of chains on the sensual personality.

This seems like such an apt quote for this moment in time.

And remember, too, the boggart in Harry Potter? It could only be vanquished by humour. Riddikulus!

So today I’m going to share some of my current favourite funnies.

 

Number One: We Go to the Gallery by Miriam Elia

We Go To The Gallery, by Miriam Elia

 

In this book, Miriam has done a brilliant job of explaining exactly what it’s like to visit a contemporary art gallery. Which was very thoughtful of her as contemporary art confuses and bewilders many. Me included.

 

From 'We Go To The Gallery' by Miriam Elia

From ‘We Go To The Gallery’ by Miriam Elia.

 

Number Two: I-Spy books by Sam Jordison

Stocking gifts, photo by Marija Smits.

Stocking gifts, photo by Marija Smits.

Last year, Father Christmas was kind enough to fill my stocking with wine, art materials and funny books. Over breakfast (cereal and tea and chocolate currency), with overexcited children running about in their pants, I began to read Sam Jordison’s I Spy book, At the School Gate: My Mum’s Better Than Your Mum.

Now, I love a good game, and the idea behind the I-Spy books is that you have to spy as many of the people in the book as possible to win points. No problem, I thought. I’m a mum who goes to the school gates! Surely I’ll quickly rack up some points for simply seeing myself in the book.

From I-Spy At The School Gates, by Sam Jordison

From I-Spy At The School Gates’, by Sam Jordison

Sadly, I immediately found myself in minus numbers as I had to subtract 40 points for being ‘The Family That Is Always Late’. Damn you Sam! And even when I discovered that I could award myself 20 points for being a ‘Guardianista’ mum (yep I’m the one at the school gates boring everyone silly with how right I am about the current sorry state of education, and Brexit, and austerity… etc. etc.) that still meant I was only at – 20. Damn you Sam!

But I’m not going to get hateful about it. Since the kids have returned to school I’m into positive numbers, what with spotting many ‘Exercise Bunnies’ and the odd ‘Chelsea Tractor’. Yay! Go me! But Sam definitely doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to ‘Hot Dad’. This is one parent I have NEVER EVER seen at the school gates. No sirree. Nope. Absolutely not. Definitely not. Never.

Hmm…

Goodness me! Is that the time? I’d really better get a move on…

Right! On to the next I-Spy book, Pets: When Human Friendship Is Not Enough. Sadly, we are cat-less at the moment but that didn’t stop me enjoying this book. I’m not sure I’ll ever spy a ‘Dog on a Trailer’ but hell! I can have fun trying.

From 'I-Spy: Pets' by Sam Jordison

From ‘I-Spy: Pets’ by Sam Jordison

My husband also received a couple of I-Spy books from Santa: The UK: While It Lasts and Signs and Instructions You Must Obey. All most certainly very amusing and worth buying and reading. But if you’ve got children be prepared to have to explain some of the surreal humour and answer philosophical questions like: “Why are there signs that say, PLEASE DO NOT THROW ROCKS AT THIS SIGN…?” and “Mummy, would you throw rocks at the sign? Because you may have to do a lot of soul-searching when trying to answer those questions.

 

Number Three: Would I Lie to You? Presents the 100 Most Popular Lies of All Time.

Would I Lie To You?

Would I Lie To You?

I ended up borrowing this book from the library for weeks on end. Yes the lies are predictable and some of the humour too, but the book very often had me laughing so much I ended up in tears. Lie #3 – Lies to watch out for from plumbers: I need to get a part created a wonderful picture of overcharging white van-driving absentee plumbers all gathering in some crowded cul-de-sac to eat Pringles, link arms and sing their plumber’s song: We’ve gone to get a part. We’ve gone to get a part. We won’t be back for over an hour, we’ve gone to get a part!’

Ah, good times.

 

Number Four: Peter Pan Goes Wrong

But if you need some visual humour right now (and suitable for all the family) do watch Peter Pan Goes Wrong on BBC IPlayer (there’s still a few days left to view it). It is simply fantastic and really does bear repeat viewing. (My daughter is somewhat obsessed by this at the moment… and I can’t help mimicking the pirate’s odd way of talking and telling my kids to “Just give me the suewooooooord…..” at random moments. Bliss.)

 

Number Five: Classic YouTube Videos

If you’re looking for an instant (and fast) hit of humour, there’s always Cats vs Cucumbers. (Worth watching just for the dog cameo. Just be aware that there is some over-the-top creepy cackling from one of the cat owners which constantly makes me wonder: Whaaaat…?)

 

And if that doesn’t do it for you I give you babies and kids falling over and being well… kids. (The kids being caught doing “naughty” stuff and mid-lies is particularly wonderful.)

 

Number Six: As seen on Facebook/Twitter/GodKnowsWhere…

Lastly, if you like a good bit of satirical humour there is always this:

Just another one of those awful magazines. Yet subverted.

Just another one of those awful magazines. Yet subverted.

 

And lastly, I give you cabbages:

Cabbages. Just that.

Cabbages. Just that.

 

I hope that one of the above tickles your funny bone, and if not, please do recommend me some of your own favourite funnies.

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New Year’s Resolutions? No thanks. I’ll do ‘Sustainable Positive Habits’ Instead.

 

The years go by... photo by Marija Smits

The years go by… photo by Marija Smits

 

Oh dear, my title has given away all the exciting stuff I was going to explain. Never mind. So yeah… I haven’t really ‘done’ New Year’s Resolutions for a few years now, and that’s mainly because those huge, rather amorphous resolutions like: I’m going to lose weight! Get richer! Become famous! (<– the last being something I’m not very interested in but still you get the drift) are simply that: unquantifiable, vague desires. So instead I’m dismissing the vagaries and set-up-to-fail resolutions and instead keeping going with my (probably not that exciting) but overall, positive habits. These are:

 

  1. Listening to my body more. Part of this involves continuing to go swimming once a week and doing two HIIT (high-intensity interval training) sessions a week because my body needs and appreciates it. Since September (when I posted my ‘Publisher’s Bum’ post) pretty much without fail I’ve kept up with this routine. So I’m pleased about that. Another part of this listening habit involves me dealing with the RSI in my wrist. To that end I’ve ordered myself an ergonomic mouse and I’ll see how it goes. The final part involves questioning myself more at dinner times, and whether I really really need to eat the kids’ leftovers and finally, continuing to listen to my body when it’s telling me to sleep and rest (and actually acting on that) which I mostly do already.

 

  1. Listening to my family more. My youngest still needs me and though my oldest child, my soon-to-be ten-year-old daughter, doesn’t ‘need’ me in the same way as she used to, they (and my husband) want to share and spend time with me and I want to do the same with them. So this habit mainly involves being fierce about protecting family time and reminding myself to listen to their cues.

 

  1. Listening to the voice of the ‘stern but fair headmistress’ in my head more often (just one of the many voices of the Wild Woman). Thankfully my inner critic isn’t too shouty anymore but I really do need to be more respectful of the headmistress. She’s the one who tells me to stop being such a magpie about shiny new creative ideas and FINISH THE CURRENT WORK. She also tells me to get off Facebook and knuckle down to the to-do list. The stroppy (and yet creative) part of me thinks she’s a party-pooper, but deep down I have great respect for her. Because it is only by finishing things that I can truly grow as a writer and artist.

 

  1. Listening to the hands of time more often. Okay, so this seems like a pretty gloomy habit. But there is only so much time to go around. It’s one of the most precious resources any human has. So learning how to make best use of it is worthwhile.

 

  1. Listening to quiet more often. This simply sometimes involves exiting cyberspace and leaving behind the noise of the internet with all its attention-grabbing headlines, tricksy ads, outraged voices, and shouty ‘me, me, me’s that make my head spin, and then tuning into my own voice. (The whispers of the Wild Woman perhaps…?) What is it trying to say? What am I thinking? How am I feeling? Better still, going for a walk in a wood where the trees grow so thickly that you can hear the sound of silence… or along the side of a lake so mirror-like it is as though the Lady of the Lake may well emerge from the waters… ah well, for me, those are some of the best experiences in the world.

 

Swan on lake, photo by Marija Smits

Swan on lake, photo by Marija Smits

 

So on that rather quiet note I will leave you to your own listening. I wish you all the best for 2017. Thank you, loyal readers (all 11 of you + my wonderful husband!) for continuing to drop by to read my reflections.

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Running on “empty”

 

Beautiful sunset, Bamburgh. photo by Tom Bellamy

Beautiful sunset, Bamburgh. Photo by Tom Bellamy

 

In the run up to our holiday I knew that I desperately needed a break; my publishing work was making me feel incredibly stressed (the financial and other pressures seem to be ever-increasing) and along with the usual family worries about how to make ends meet, school issues, sibling arguments, a lack of time for my own creativity, a lack of alone time and time with my husband, as well as the frustrations of the same old same old environment and routine, I knew a break was necessary. But I didn’t quite know how badly I needed the break. When we got to our holiday cottage after a mostly stuck-in-traffic 6 hour journey we immediately headed to the beach for an evening stroll. When I saw the wide expanse of white sand and the breathtaking sky – to say nothing of the amazing castle in the background – I started to cry. It was a sudden jolt to realize how ‘empty’ I had been and that ‘empty’ felt so very, well, empty. I cried on and off for the rest of the stroll, thinking about how beautiful the world was, and how lucky I was to be at this beach with my lovely family.

 

Bamburgh Castle, photo by Tom Bellamy

Bamburgh Castle, photo by Tom Bellamy

 

I had planned to do some writing during the holiday but I honestly didn’t feel like doing it. I listened to my inner voice (the voice of the Wild Woman, if you will) which told me that I needed to just be. To feel the sand between my toes, the (very cold!) seawater at my ankles and the sun on my skin. I felt rather like a sponge, which had been wrung out, emptied of every drop of moisture, but then deposited into water where I slowly began to soak up every drop of this everyday and natural beauty. At the end of the holiday I felt better; so much more refreshed.

 

I’m what you would call a fairly ‘social’ HSP, but in today’s world, with constant online socializing, news and info. dumping, as well as the whole neoliberal agenda going on in the background, which tells us that we have to ‘work harder, work longer’, time to simply be, without reporting on our every thought and act, is rare. This holiday was a good reminder that I need to stop more and pause. Because running on empty really isn’t a good idea.

 

I hope that you have all had a chance to pause this August and to feel some sun on your skin.

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Turning 40 – some reflections

 

Some treats of turning 40! Photo by Marija Smits

Some treats of turning 40. Photo by Marija Smits.

I’m not particularly worried about getting older, but there’s something about the number 40 that doesn’t particularly appeal to me. You see, in my quirky little overthinking brain, numbers have personalities. 5 is probably my favourite number because it’s a little bit curvy but it also has some straight bits. I consider it a friendly (but upstanding) number. It’s odd but, somehow, warm. The number 4 is all straight and cross and it looks rather irritable. And 0, well, that could be taken as a disappointed ‘oh’ (as in ‘forty, oh dear’). Or perhaps a rather surprised ‘oh’ or perhaps it’s sole function is to look like the shape of the mouth of the person screaming in Edvard Munch’s famous painting. I don’t know. I digress.

Yet, time marches onwards and it doesn’t care for my own particular preferences when it comes to what my age is now. So… I’m 40 now, and it’s time for a little reflection on the past decade and the forthcoming decade.

At thirty, I was pregnant with my first child, my darling girl. She was born in April, approximately a month before I turned 31. That 31st birthday was not particularly memorable to me because my life didn’t seem to be about me anymore. Instead, everything was about this tiny being who had entered our lives and time itself seemed to have shifted. I have photo albums which, instead of being labelled by months (or years), were instead labelled with my daughter’s name and by how old she was (in months). It took me quite a few years to shift back to ‘normal’ calendar months, which, I guess, shows just how much my life back then revolved around her.

So, in essence, the past decade, for me, has been very much about becoming a mother, first to my daughter, and then three-and-a-half years later to my son. It has been about breastfeeding, coping with little sleep, finding my own path as an HSP parent, finding a ‘tribe’ of like-minded mothers and lots and lots of nappy changing.

But it’s also been about finding a new surge of creativity within me and learning hundreds of new skills (some of which I used to set up and manage my small press, Mother’s Milk Books – but that’s a whole other story!). And throughout this hazy decade, I’ve been reading and writing, which has helped me hugely with reflecting on who I am, my place on this earth, and what I want to spend my days doing. The non-fiction books I wrote about here helped me enormously with my reflections, but I realize that not everything is done, soul-work wise, so I’m sure I’ll be adding more to this list soon. I’m aware, too, that I want to read more about politics, psychology, feminism and history; Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond have been on my reading list for a while. And I’ve also just got Love and Limerence, by Dorothy Tennov, which I hope will help to clarify some of my (as yet) incompletely developed ideas about love, lust and romance and what they mean to me as an individual.

Writing-wise, I *think* I’ve served my apprenticeship having written an okayish first novel (which will most likely stay hidden away in a drawer), lots and lots of poetry, a fair few short stories, a children’s chapter book, several children’s picture books and lastly… a good beginning on an epic fantasy trilogy.

So, what will the next decade be about? Well, my last decade taught me a lot about time. And how it’s very precious. And finite. So, perhaps, my oh-so-very-urgent desire for ‘better’ or ‘success’ was understandable. I was child-like in my impatience for wanting to be ‘better’ at art NOW! Or ‘better’ at writing NOW! But when it comes to mastering a skill, time and patience and dedication to the skill are the only things that will make a difference. So I am definitely going to be more accepting of that fact. And I have to face the fact, too, that if I don’t make time for my creativity it won’t happen. And I don’t want to live with the regret of not having tried my very best to master a creative skill and then shared the fruit of my labours with others (although my view on how to share the products of my creativity is still very much in flux).

So… as ever, boundaries will be important. It’s too easy to let social media, never-ending work and other societal pulls drag me away from what’s really key to my wellbeing: time spent with my loved ones (at home, and in nature) and time spent on creative endeavours.

I know I have a tendency to overthink things (the horrors of OCD rumination never seem too far away) but I am cautiously (I’ve got to be cautious, right? I’m an HSP!) looking forward to this decade. And what more can I give myself than the gift of being open to the challenges and gifts of the next decade? None.

Forty, after the party. Photo by Marija Smits

Forty, after the party. Photo by Marija Smits.

 

And a huge welcome back to Maddy from Writing Bubble after her week’s internet break. It’s good to have you back!

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On our summer holiday, reading, writing and having an epiphany

As it seems to have been an age since I last blogged (though I’m still just about managing the once-a-month blog post!) I thought I’d go with a list to help me put into words all the big things that have been happening around here.

 

  1. HOLIDAYS
Blue beach. photo by Marija Smits

Blue beach, photo by Marija Smits

Our one week away to Wales at the start of August was lovely, and very much needed. The weather wasn’t great and a couple of planned trips out got cancelled for various reasons (beach inaccessible due to a completely full car park, a favourite restaurant/café closed etc.) and our youngest got a cold on the first day so, of course, we all ended up snotty/sore throaty BUT, the holiday was still hugely beneficial. It was great to simply get away from the pressures of work and the never-ending call of social media and I got some reading and writing done too. I even managed to get an hour or two all to myself to write on the beach while my husband went out with the kids. Writing on the beach accompanied by the sounds of the sea, a coffee and a pain-au-chocolate was pretty amazing. And at the end of the week I even got to swim in the sea. Bliss!

Our journey back was even more exciting since our car broke down a few miles away from home. Yes, it was a huge annoyance, and yes it has cost us a lot (the car was pretty much written off…) but I’m still very thankful that the breakdown didn’t happen on the motorway. While we were waiting for the breakdown truck to get us, I even managed to write a little more of my new book…

 

  1. READING

 

Reading has consumed any free moments, as usual. I do want to mention some books that I’ve read recently, and which have made an impression on me. I love to help out authors by writing reviews but I’m aware that there’s not enough time in my life to do each of them justice (it can take me an age to write a review) but it seems that the least I can do is mention them here.

 

Fiction:

Moss Witch by Sarah Maitland

Moss Witch And Other Stories by Sara Maitland. I love the way that Sara has taken various concepts and ideas from various scientific fields and built (or hinged) stories on them. Some stories, I feel, work better than others but each is beautifully written and page-turning. Of course, I found the bits written by the scientists fascinating too. If you’re a fan of short stories and/or wishing to learn more about science I’d highly recommend this.

I’ve got so many other fiction books on my to-read list that I have no idea what I’ll read next fiction-wise, but I’d like to make a start on White Lies by Lynn Michell (of Linen Press).

White_Lies by Lynn MItchell

 

Poetry:

The Magnetic Diaries by Sarah James

The Magnetic Diaries by Sarah James

What Sarah has done with this narrative of poems that echo the book Madame Bovary is remarkable. I thought it highly original and fascinating in the way that Madame Bovary was fascinating to me when I read it many, many years ago; Emma Bovary is a difficult character to empathise with and yet I was transfixed by her unravelling life… If you enjoy contemporary poetry or would like to read something that gives an insight into the darkness of a mind overwhelmed by depression, I’d highly recommend it.

Although I’ve got various other poetry books on my ‘to-read’ pile Ruth Stacey’s book Queen, Jewel, Mistress has caught my eye and I hope to get it one day soon! (Maybe at Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair, in London on 26th September, where I will be selling my Mother’s Milk Books books.)

Queen, Jewel, Mistress, by Ruth Stacey

Non-fiction:

How to Win Writing Competitions by Cathy Bryant

How to Win Writing Competitions by Cathy Bryant

I bought this book because I’m a fan of Cathy’s writing, although I did initially think that surely there wasn’t a lot more I could learn about submitting to magazines or writing competitions. But you know what, I was wrong. As I wrote in my Amazon review, “I’d certainly recommend this to amateur writers but also to those who think they know the drill by now.” Oh, and it includes one of the funniest short stories I’ve ever read.

 

Take It Cool, photo by Marija Smits

Take It Cool, photo by Marija Smits

 

Take it Cool by Jonathan Pinnock

When I received this book I knew very little about reggae, or the slave trade, but by the end of the book I knew a whole lot more and was glad that I’d stretched myself by reading something I’d probably not normally consider reading. This book is fascinating and as creative non-fiction goes, a highly-enjoyable read. The author is a fine writer and very, very funny; he has the kind of self-deprecating, weird humour that really tickles me and I laughed out loud at many parts. I’m really glad to have found Jonathan through my random stumblings across the internet (I won the book in a giveaway on his blog) and want to read more of his books — his short story collection Dot Dash sounds brilliant, as does Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens. What a fab title!

 

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

This book introduced me to the powerful idea that a writer must be aware of what kind of story they’re writing before they write it. He uses the acronym MICE for the four kinds of story there are:

 

Milieu

Idea

Character

Event

 

And even though many novels are a mixture of the above (i.e. there are various sub-plots in a book that can be any of the above) a writer can potentially fall into various traps if they set about, say, writing an idea story that then morphs into a character story. Anyway, I know that every writer has their own favourite how-to books but there’s something about Card’s writing style, and his approach to writing, that really clicks with me. And although I’ve seen the movie of his book Ender’s Game, it’s made me want to read Ender’s Game when I next have a free moment.

 

The next non-fiction books on my to-read list are The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron and Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph. I’m also desperate to read Angela Topping’s book: Focus on ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter. I’ve asked for this several times for birthdays and Christmases but it hasn’t been gifted to me as yet. Fingers-crossed it’ll be in my stocking this year!

Focus on The Bloody Chamber

 

Work-wise, I recently read a fantastic manuscript by Becky Smith and then I re-entered the world of another fantastical literary world, as created by Alison Lock. I’m super-excited again about the fact that I get to work with writers of Becky and Alison’s calibre as part of the publishing venture that is Mother’s Milk Books. (And I also wanted to say that it was a pleasure to watch Ana Salote — author of Oy Yew — in action recently at a bookshop event for children. Seeing the children lose themselves in the words of her book was simply magical).

 

Oy Yew by Ana Salote

 

  1. WRITING

 

Although now it seems ridiculous that I ever had an ‘epiphany’ moment about my writing, I must say that this is what happened to me this summer. My first novel was mainly a character story (it was a commercial fiction book set in the contemporary world. Well, mostly the 1990s, but to my mind that’s still pretty contemporary!). Various events powered the story along. For a good long while I toyed with the idea of getting it ‘out there’ but now that I’ve re-read it I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really want it out there. It was written as part of my own personal writing apprenticeship (a 10 year long apprenticeship!) and now I want to move on to other things. Quite honestly, I just don’t think it’s good enough to be published. And I don’t think it’s necessary (or a good idea) for me to expend time and energy on trying to edit it further and publish it. Also, it made me think long and hard about what I do want to write and try to get published, and as I’ve got a fair few story and novel ideas in my head that are of a fantastical nature I suddenly realized — WOW! — I’m a sci-fi and fantasy writer.

TB The Forgotten & The Fantastical cover 2015 version 5 colour Lt Oksana font with outline scaled

That was my big epiphany (which kind of seems silly now as only in March I was writing an introduction to The Forgotten and the Fantastical and explaining how my name means fairy tale in Latvian, and how books of a fantastical nature had always been a big part of my life). Hmm… why didn’t I get it back then? Anyway, no matter, I’m thoroughly enjoying focussing on writing my second novel which is, yes you guessed it, a great sprawling work of fantasy. I’m not ever going to completely pigeon-hole myself into just that one genre – I’m still enjoying writing poetry and I do have the odd short story and novel idea not in the sff genre, but on the whole, yes, I’m a writer fascinated by the fantastical…

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Which is also why I simply had to read How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. For someone fresh from their epiphany of ‘I’m an sff writer’, this has been a pure joy to read and I want to go out and buy the following two books that Card mentions in his How-To book: Helliconia by Brian Aldiss and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. In fact, I want to get all the SF Masterworks. I’m smitten!

 

  1. ART
Broken engine in the boot, photo by Marija Smits

Broken engine in the boot, photo by Marija Smits

Sadly, because of work busyness and writing busyness and family busyness (not to mention the pesky business of dealing with a knackered car – see above!), I’ve only managed to do a little sketching. But, and this is a very bittersweet but, but when my youngest starts school in September (just a few days away) I’m planning on spending a little time focussing on painting and drawing. I think it’ll help me to adjust to this huge shift in our family dynamic. I’ve been an at-home mother with either one or two kids at home for 8 years now and yes… although I will welcome not having to deal with holiday sibling squabbles every 5 minutes and not having an audience when either on the loo or in the shower, the house will seem strangely silent, and yes, no doubt, I will weep.

***

I hope you all had healthy and happy holidays and I wish you all the best for whatever autumn brings. It’s currently bringing us the joy of blackberry smoothies and homegrown green beans and tomatoes!

Fruit & veg snack, photo by Marija Smits

Fruit & veg snack, photo by Marija Smits

Thank you also to Maddy and Chrissie for once more taking on the fine thing that is What I’m Writing. Welcome back y’all!

Writing Bubble