What I did at 40

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

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

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

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

 

Running an indie press

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

Teika at Waterstones

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

 

Blogging with my husband about all things publishing/writing

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

 

Getting up early to write

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

 

Weightlifting

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

 

Jogging

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

Teika after jogging

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

 

 

Having a story in the Best of British Science Fiction 2018

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Making art

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

 

 

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

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Luke Skywalker’s Midlife Crisis

 

antastic building in the desert - photo by leshiy985/Shutterstock

Photo by leshiy985/Shutterstock

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prose for Thought

The Mentor’s Journey (Interlude)

Having just now come to an end of a period of mentorship I am taking a break. I am in an ‘interlude’.

For the past year I’ve been a mentor to a wonderful woman. The year before that I mentored another remarkable woman. Without going into too much detail, I wanted to write about what being a mentor meant to me, and to share my thoughts on what happens now.

For me, being a mentor was a sometimes intense and challenging experience in that it made me think a lot about communication, psychology, societal judgement and what it means to be a mother. Big stuff! It was also incredibly rewarding to see my mentees learning so much, and I learnt a good deal about myself. (It once again confirmed for me my high-sensitivity — I worried a lot about being the best mentor I could be. I worried about getting stuff wrong. I worried about the paperwork details… You get the picture.)

Now that I am no longer a mentor I feel a strange mix of feelings. In some ways I feel relieved (they did it! I did it! Hooray!) and also I feel sad that I won’t be seeing these wonderful women as often as I did before. With many experiences in life there is this same mix of ‘bittersweet’, but try as I might I couldn’t think of any useful examples from film or literature that would give me any insight into the mentor’s journey, and which I could relate to and learn from. What becomes of the mentor? What do they do now?

I could think of many examples of mentor-mentee partnerships (the coupling of Obi-Wan Kenobi and subsequently Yoda, with Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars trilogy has got to be one of my own personal favourites!) but they tend to focus on the mentee’s journey.

 

A New Hope book

I thought a little longer… and came up with lots more brilliant mentor-mentee relationships: Frodo and Gandalf, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, Daniel and Mr Miyagi, Jamal Wallace and William Forrester in the film Finding Forrester and Will Hunting and Dr Sean Maguire from Good Will Hunting. The scene where Sean (superbly played by Robin Williams) says to Will [about the abuse that he suffered when younger] that ‘it’s not your fault’ over and over again until Will breaks down sobbing has got to be one of my all-time favourite cinematic scenes.

Aside from Gandalf (whose own journey past death/into a higher state of consciousness – I haven’t quite figured that one out! – is witnessed) the focus is on the mentee. At the end of the mentee’s journey (which tends to be the length of the whole film or book) we often see that the mentor has had a life-changing experience – maybe this is the best way to explain what happens to Gandalf – although we don’t get to see what’s in store for them in their new life. We get a tantalizing glimpse that there is a new life ahead of them, although we don’t get to see much of what it looks like.

Then there are the mentee-mentor journeys which go either tragically (or simply horribly) wrong. I’m thinking of Dead Poets’ Society here, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Notes On A Scandal, even Emma by Jane Austen.

Then there are the Sith in Star Wars. How anyone embarking on a mentorship with a Sith (which is basically a mentoring of how to be evil) can think it won’t end up biting them on the bum is a fool. But of course we can’t help but be gripped by how it goes so badly wrong…

Again, these partnerships give fascinating insights into the power (and responsibility) held by the mentor, and how a mentee (and mentor) can be deeply affected by the relationship.

Something I learnt early on from my own mentoring experience is that the mentor and mentee have to be a good fit. I just can’t see how much use can come of a mentee-mentor relationship where both people aren’t attune with each other. (I wanted to use a quote here from Clarissa Pinkola Estes book Women Who Run With The Wolves but I can’t find it. If anyone knows the passage I’m talking about here, please do let me know!)

The word mentor comes from the name of a Greek mythological hero Μέντωρ, Méntōr, who mentored Telemachus. When I thought of the many mentor figures in literature, I could think of more examples of male mentors as oppose to female mentors, but of course being a mentor is not sex-specific. I love how it was actually the goddess Athena, disguised as Mentor, who inspired and counseled Telemachus to go in search of his father Odysseus.

Another interesting facet of being a mentor is that the mentor cannot be tied by blood to their mentee. Their relationship has to exist out of the sphere of the family… It has the potential to be broken (unlike blood ties that irrevocably bind us whether we want them to or not), which, I think, actually gives it its strength.

So… what do I do now? Of course I’m busy with family, work and my own creative pursuits, but a part of me still yearns to ‘give back’ by being a mentor.

I’ve noticed that mentoring schemes are also on the increase. I’ve heard great things from people involved with The WoMentoring Project (for women who write) and think the aims behind the following two organizations are fantastic: The Girls Network (“…a charity that matches girls from low socio-economic backgrounds with inspirational female mentors from all walks of life. [Their] mission is to raise aspirations and remove the barriers from our girls’ path to success.”) and The Wise Campaign (which aims to get more women into the sciences).

One day, time allowing (!), l may look into these so that I can continue to ‘give back’ by mentoring. Yet for the time being I am in an ‘interlude’. It feels disquieting and yet freeing too. I will await the next act.

 

p.s. All this referencing to Star Wars reminds me that I’m really looking forward to the next ‘act’ in the Star Wars saga!

p.p.s. Do let me know your own personal mentor-mentee relationships from books and films. I want to know. 🙂

 

Thanks again to Amanda at WriteAlm for the inspiring writing prompts.