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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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…

31emljRrCpL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

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

Overwhelm, publishing and our favourite children’s books

Things have been super-hectic here, what with the usual summer activities – Sports Day, the school play and the village fair – but also my own work publishing other people’s books has kept me very, very busy. I recently published a middle-grade children’s/crossover book called Oy Yew, by Ana Salote. It is simply a superb book and I really do mean that – during the editing, copyediting, proofreading, typesetting and conversion to kindle process (I’m still in the middle of that last one) I must have read the book about 10 times, and I STILL love it. However, I have suffered with eye-strain and ‘writer’s bum’ from being slumped over a computer at every available moment so I’ve tried to take every opportunity to get out into the fresh air, to exercise and to take a break from the screen.

Oy Yew by Ana Salote

Oy Yew by Ana Salote

I have, at times, felt overwhelmed by everything (particularly as there is little time for my own artistic and literary endeavours – doodling and writing the odd paragraph or two is all I’ve managed recently) and so sometimes I’ve pictured myself as a little boat on a stormy sea.

Doodle of a little boat on a stormy sea by Marija Smits

Doodle of a little boat on a stormy sea by Marija Smits

BUT, my supportive family have been my one constant and every night I’ve been reminded of just why I’ve been doing all this ‘bookish’ work – because I simply love reading to my kids and sharing books with them. This is surely why all (well, at least, most) writers write – for that vague feeling/hope that someone, somewhere, right now is getting lost in the world created by the writer. I know that sitting with both my kids at bedtime and reading to them has been a wonderful escape for me from my everyday concerns, so I thought I’d share some of our favourite books here. As my children are 8 and 4 it can be difficult to find books that engage them both, but the below seem to have captured their imaginations. No doubt you’ve heard of many (if not all) of these wonderful books/writers but if you haven’t I’d encourage you to give them a try (and if you can’t get them at the library, why not support your local bookshop and buy from them?). And if you think I’ve missed some that our kids may like please do let me know.

  • The Findus books by Sven Nordqvist

Findus Plants Meatballs by Sven Nordqvist

 

  • And Sven’s Where is my Sister is absolutely stunning illustration-wise.

Where is my Sister by Sven Nordqvist

 

  • The I Spy books by Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick

I Spy Fantasy by Walter Wick and Jean Marzollo

 

  •  Long Tail Kitty by Lark Pien (my kids always howl with laughter when I do the different voices for the alien characters at the end of the book…)

Long Tail Kitty by Lark Pien

 

  • Frederick by Leo Lionni (particularly good for children – or adults – who wonder what the worth of poetry is…)

Frederick by Leo Lionni

 

  • Most of the Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler books are a hit (though Tabby McTat is our favourite, and not The Gruffalo!)

Tabby McTat by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

 

  • Virtually anything by Oliver Jeffers is a hit too, though Stuck and The Great Paper Caper are probably our favourites (and a grumble about The Day the Crayons Quit: it seems that most of the crayons are boys… hmm).

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

 

  • Christopher Nibble, by Charlotte Middleton

Christopher Nibble by Charlotte Middleton

  • Virtually any of the Mog books by Judith Kerr
Mog's Bad Thing

Mog’s Bad Thing by Judith Kerr

 

  • And any of Shirley Hughes’s books

Alfie's Feet by Shirley Hughes

 

  • Me by Emma Dodd is another favourite

Me by Emma Dodd

  • Any of the Percy the park keeper’s books (the below is perfect for wintertime)

One Snowy Night by Nick Butterworth

  •  We really like Mick Inkpen’s creation, Kipper, but we also particularly like the story of Threadbear.
Threadbear by Mick Inkpen

Threadbear by Mick Inkpen

 

  • Topsy and Tim my kids both love (although I’m not as big a fan as they are!)

Topsy and Tim

  • And I especially appreciate Cover to Cover: How a Book is Made by Rob Lewis as it explains beautifully what is involved in mummy’s publishing work… 🙂

Cover to Cover by Rob Lewis

Enjoy!

And many thanks to Maddy and Chrissie for being such hard-working and lovely hosts 🙂

Writing Bubble

Supercool Sherlock and memories of books…

I’m not sure when or how I came to be introduced to Sherlock Holmes. All I remember is that I was ‘a lot younger’ (so this could mean anything between the ages of 13 and 23!) but I can remember sitting on my parents’ old bed with some snacks beside me – chocolate, if I was lucky – and being utterly absorbed by this huge book which had all the novels and stories of Sherlock Holmes within. I would read on and on, never even noticing that it had become dark outside…

Something really clicked with me the other day when I read that my friend (and fellow small press owner, Susan Last) wrote that she was a voracious reader as a child. I suddenly realized that those would be the exact words to describe myself as a child as well.

I can clearly remember the two heaving shelves of books in my bedroom. They were above my bed and I couldn’t help but worry sometimes that the shelves would collapse and all the books would break my bones! (They didn’t, of course.) I remember also the trips to our tiny local library. It was only ever myself and the librarian in there. Ah, the peace and quiet! (That’ll really mean something to mothers of young children!). The library in town was much bigger and noisier, but it had a greater selection of books – it was a good place to pick up new reads, and the periodic raids of my big sister’s book shelves always yielded interesting results (I mainly went by the look of the book covers then). I have memories too of going into the bookshop in town and treating myself to a new book (I would go straight for the Wordsworth Classics section back then because I knew I could buy a new book for a mere £1. They even sometimes had them reduced to 50p!). This was treasure indeed…

I wasn’t aware, at the time, of other people reading Sherlock Holmes. I kind of guessed that it wasn’t a ‘cool’ book, because, well, Sherlock Holmes went around wearing a deerstalker hat and it was all set a long time ago. The fact that I knew a few bits of trivia about Sherlock Holmes was helpful though – particularly in pub quizzes!

Sherlock book and Radio Times

Sherlock book and Radio Times

I couldn’t have guessed then that x number of years on Sherlock would be cool. Not just cool, but supercool, and no doubt a huge part of that is down to the casting, but I still think it’s worth mentioning that at the heart of this successful series is Conan Doyle’s masterful storytelling. After watching the latest episode I am inspired – again – by the power of story, and the rich possibilities therein.

Benedict Cumberbatch by Marija Smits

Benedict Cumberbatch by Marija Smits

P.S. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy drawing the above handsome face (oh those eyes!) but what I’m most pleased about is the fact that I managed to accomplish this at all. My drawing time seems to have diminished of late and I managed to do this in 20 minute bursts (once a week) while I sat beside the local swimming pool as my daughter splashed away, busy with her lesson. I’m very pleased to say that she can now swim a full 5 metres which makes me very proud!