Sunday, 22 February 2009

* SHOCK NEWS* Dog Hijacks Blog

the author is away doing school visits and riding on gondolas, so i'm taking my chance and getting my paws on the computer. willow the dastardly dandie dinmont here. the one who chases the rabid rabbits. the handsome one at the top of the page with a blonde hairdo--sort of a short daniel craig i like to think. anyway--while she's deserted me i've given an all-revealing hard-hitting interview to my friend amigo the golden retriever over at his pets and authors blog. if you want to read all about it (all the dirt, i mean), hop on over there now. right, this typing stuff is tiring (and i can't work out the shifty key thing). off for a nap now. she'll be back in a week or so to write some more gloomy stuff, about depression probably. can't see it myself--what's to be depressed about when you've got a garden full of good smells and nice stuff to roll in? she should try it sometime. eau de badger--nothing better for the spirits. though come to think of it she dumps me in the sink when i do it. what is it with these humans and washing? snooooooorrrrre.....

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Over at the Other Place

Today's posting is over at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blog I write with 19 other UK children's authors. It's full of writing wisdom, wit, humour and much else. So hop on over and take a look!

Friday, 20 February 2009

Milton to Dante: Pondering William Styron's 'Darkness Visible'

Milton said it perfectly in 'Paradise Lost'. 'No light, but rather darkness visible served only to discover sights of woe', and it is this quote which gives William Styron the title for his moving book, which deals with the dark journey through his own depression.

Writing is, for the most part, a solitary profession. In my case, (save for the occasional school visit, convivial lunch with agent or editor or fellow authors, or annual publisher's party), I sit in a room, on my own, making stuff up and setting the visions in my head down on a screen. It is hardly surprising that, living as I do in a daily mindworld where dead girls speak, dragons rise from the earth and green-toothed elves dance in warning, my own mind should sometimes rise up against me, telling me that what I do is unutterably useless and pointless. It is at this point that the Beast bites. Styron describes this as his thought processes 'being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.' Reading his words was, for me, a recognition akin to a light being turned on in a dark room. With this book I did what I never do (being a respecter of the sanctity of the printed page). I underlined and made comments and wrote 'YES!!' in large capitals in many places. I felt as if, finally, I had found a fellow wanderer in an empty desert who could describe not only what and how I am feeling, but also do it in words simple and direct enough that others--those 'healthy people' on the outside of this condition--might be able to understand too. When Styron speaks of the 'weather of depression', I understand precisely what he means. For him its light is a 'brownout', for me a greyish fog impossible to see anything in except blurred shapes and outlines.

Maybe you cannot understand how strengthening and comforting it felt to read something which made sense of my own experience, and reminded me gently of how many other writers have been in the pit too. Shakespeare understood it--how else would he have written Hamlet? Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Camus, Manley Hopkins, Beethoven, Van Gogh...and so many more. I am in good company when I find myself in Dante's 'dark wood', and so, when the Beast is once again at its most savage (which it surely will be), I will remind myself of this. For now, the fight to climb upwards will go on. I am not quite there yet, but thanks to William Styron's book, I am closer to the place where I will come forth to 'riveder le stelle'--to 'behold the stars once more.'

Monday, 16 February 2009

Earth Sores and Angels: The Price We Pay for Creativity?

"How strange that we have to make these public declarations of our secrets,' said Ted Hughes in a letter to a friend, with reference to the publication of Birthday Letters, and in a British paper today is the headline 'The Healing Power of Putting Pen To Paper'. Creative types of all kinds--writers, songwriters, poets--have found solace in putting their pain down in black and white. There goes Amy Winehouse making sense of an unfaithful partner with with her lyrics for Back to Black , there is Dylan Thomas agonising in poetry over the death of his father with Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, there is William Styron with his memoir of madness, Darkness Visible.

Since I blogged about depression a short while ago, I have had many kind expressions of support which have helped me to start to find a way through again. What struck home most though was the number of creative people who wondered whether, perhaps, this dark place, this 'earth sore' as one friend put it, is the price we pay for our visits from the angelic Muse of inspiration. I do know that a very eminent chiropractor, who treats many literary types, told me once that almost without exception we are all literally 'off our rockers'--a phrase which has come to mean mad. The 'rocker' is apparently a small bone at the bottom of the back of the skull. Writers, artists and poets are inclined to have it out of place. So this is a physical clue. But mentally? Why do so many of us have days when it is unrelievedly dark amid the blaze of noon?

If you were to trace a path through literary history, especially the literary history of poetry, you would find a trail of evidence. Pain internalised festers, pain crafted and honed and bound into the form of a sonnet or some other poetic form takes a step outside the mind, and by doing so begins to make sense. At the very least it is a release of emotion. By writing painful things down, exposing our innermost secrets to the light of day, we begin to heal them. For myself, having been badly bullied as a child, writing about that experience in a fictional form was cathartic in the extreme. Linnet Perry in Hootcat Hill is not me--nowhere close. But fictionalising some of my own painful childhood experience into hers helped me to face it and put it behind me. I have not yet begun to make sense of my depression through fiction--though I expect that one day I will. However, looking through old files, I found that I had tried to make sense of it, as so many others have, through poetry (see below). I have been in the dark place before as I am still, partly, now, and will be so again. But I will continue to try to make sense of it by writing it down, and I will not be alone in doing so.

Nil, nisi, nihil, nix

Might they be monsters?
They come on dark days and stormy nights
and bash in the outward signs and symbols
of your life, till all you thought you knew
about yourself is crumpled metal panels
and glass on a dirty pavement
with the rain falling down.
And if a familiar knight in shining black jeans
should come running by,
then they will take the crowbar to his face too, until
it becomes an uncharted territory of bruise and bone.
They are not totally cruel. They will allow you one
long long kiss on his bloody-lipped swollen mouth,
and ten short seconds
to whisper red-tasting messages of love to
your family. Then there will be hard hands
under each armpit and a faceless dragging journey
away from the blood and the broken headlights.
You’re on your own now, babe.
(And always have been hisses an ancient echo).
So here you are flying—it’s very sudden—
almost pleasurably swooping along
over the cute corn-cut patchwork of England
listening to a maybe voice of hope on the wind.
Then it’s down down down as
they handle you into the sloped
cream room with wooden slatted floors
and only one blank window—
the place where nothing is in balance, and silent
voices shout questions of sorcery and power
which you cannot answer.
There is a polished walnut wardrobe on the
right-hand side of the room,
just halfway down. When the silent ones
leave for a tea-break you open it,
and out from the empty mothball shelves blows
the secret name of the wind.
It begins with ‘M’.
If only you could remember it
you would be free.
But until then you must climb in
and shut up mind and wardrobe doors
very tight, so that
when they return into the now-empty room,
they do not discover
that the wind has gone missing too.

(Copyright Lucy Coats 2009)

Saturday, 14 February 2009

"What Kind Of Vegetable Would I Be?" Asks Terry Pratchett

I may be cursed with the Demon Beast of Depression, but I think, having watched Terry Pratchett's two inspiring programmes on the BBC, that I am much less brave* in writing about it than he is in talking about having Alzheimer's. Being the sort of person he is, I expect he would hate me to go on about this bravery, so I shan't. I shall write instead about something he said during the programme which made me laugh. I am sure that he would much prefer this. Making people laugh is something he does well and often--the Demon Toast Eater is frequently annoyed by my sniggering at something Terry has written, mostly to do with Nanny Ogg and her Hedgehog Song or Death or...or, well, too many things to enumerate here.

Alzheimer's is a terrible condition. Let no one dispute this. Someone on the Bookwitch's blog likened it to watching a parent being devoured by Pullman's Spectres. But one of the things Terry's infinitely inventive and unusual brain wanted to know among a myriad other (and more serious) queries about what was going to happen to him as things progressed was this. "If I am to become a vegetable, what sort of a vegetable would I be?" This is a very good question, well up to Discworld standard. It deserves thought, respect, and a measured response. Terry himself didn't elaborate further on it, so I came up with some of my own answers.

A very young and tender broad bean, cocooned in a pod of silken wool would come under consideration for me. I would be rocked by the June breeze on a sturdy stem, cradled against my bean brothers and sisters. Hopefully I would then be picked, have a brief glimpse of glorious sun, and shortly afterwards be combined with the best olive oil, a little serrano ham, some chervil, salt and pepper, and know that I had given much culinary pleasure to the person who had planted my parent.

Or maybe to be a bulb of the best fennel would be a finer destiny. That small, fragrant brown seed would be put to bed in the earth, and slowly sprout into a firm, round white bulb, topped by luscious and abundant feathery green hair. I would soak up the sun's rays all summer, before being picked, sliced into thin slivers of aniseed-scented heaven on a plate. A little parmesan or perhaps a morsel of best mozzarella bufala, a few sun warm cherry tomatoes which I have chatted to over the fence--and a dressing of pernod, virgin oil and a smidgen of lemon and mustard.

St Anselm's obituary in the Lives of the Saints says this: "--And so he died, at the conclusion of an eminently useful life, and thus obtained his crown in Paradise." Vegetable or human, that is what I should wish for myself. To end having had an eminently useful life. To give pleasure through writing may not seem useful in itself. It does not serve any practical purpose after all. But to bring joy and laughter into other people's lives, as Terry has done, and will continue to do for many many years, I hope, is no small thing, and of great use to the human spirit. I should be happy to bring to other people only a small part of the pleasure his Discworld has given me. That would be eminently useful indeed.
PS: in the spirit of enquiry, I should like to know what vegetable you would be. And why.
*I have had lots of lovely emails and notes telling me that I am brave to have 'come out' about my depression in this way. It does not seem so to me, however.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

In the Jaws of the Beast Depression

The 'D' word. Depression. The one British people seem to have such difficulty talking about. It has held me helpless in its jaws for some little while now, and I AM going to write about it. In that way I may reduce its power over me. May, I say. So if you are of a stiff-upper-lipped disposition, look away now. Baring of the soul can be embarrassing.

You can't see it. That's the first fact. It is not a broken limb, not a cut nor a bruise nor a dripping red nose. It is invisible, inner--an internal battle with the mind. If you are clever about disguising it (and I am), only your nearest and dearest will know--and maybe not even them. Ask me how it feels, and perhaps I will try to tell you. But probably not. Words on paper come easily. Words to describe this thing (and yes, it feels like a tangible entity)--to say out loud what it does to me are less easy. I find myself inarticulate and gagged and unable to formulate the energy to speak at all about it. It is all just too much effort.
When the fight is going my way, I have methods of keeping it at bay. Mostly they work. I have had a great deal of practice in making them do so. But sometimes a small thing (or maybe a larger one), will tip the balance the other way, in the beast's favour, and then it pounces, leaps, pins me to the floor, rolls me into a deep pit with no ladder and no way out. It is then that it becomes a little more physical, with tears (slow, rolling, unstoppable), loss of appetite, sleeplessness leading to utter exhaustion of body. Worse than all these is the unseeable grey fog which surrounds me, suppressing all emotion. I care for nothing and no one in this place, and I feel sick and weighted with a formless burden of fear, which freezes me like a rabbit in headlights. Moving is hard, seeing anyone--speaking of everyday normality--is impossible. The only remedy is hibernation. Hiding. Running away, some would call it--but it is not that for me. I need to fight this battle in private and alone. After all, who else but I can battle the beast in my head?

Pills, people say to me. There are pills which will help you. But I choose not to go down that route. Part of being a writer is to be able to feel, to experience. The pills take me to a calm plain where I am unable to feel anything at all. I won't go there again because the last time I did, I couldn't write for a year. I am a strong person, and I know, rationally, that this will pass eventually, given time. And I am luckier than many. There are small rays of hope. Loving family who understand. Caring friends who hold out a hand and send kind and worried wishes. This morning, forinstance, I received a cheering and unexpected parcel of cantuccini biscuits in the post, and yesterday, from the same lovely person, the offer of 'a ladder made of kind thoughts and warm wishes...gossamer-frail...but it is deceptive and has the strength of iron and steel.' It is on the back of such small but important things that I will climb out and up to the sunlight again.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Secret Gardens, Literary Doors**AND A PRIZE GIVEAWAY!**

What is behind the door? Where might it lead? Who might lurk behind it? Another world? Another time? A faun with an umbrella? A robin? A garden full of wonders? Doors have a wonderful literary heritage in children's books. My grandmother bequeathed me her very own childhood copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, complete with onionskin covered, handcoloured plates, and slightly foxed sepia endpapers with elegant, curving swirls drawn upon them. A valuable second edition? I didn't care about that, only for the words inside, which blossomed into pictures inside my head. As an only child, with much older parents, I could relate to the lonely Mary Lennox, and her grumpy moods, and her 'might I have a bit of earth?'. The scene where that bit of ivy swings back, and the robin shows her the door to the garden is, for me, one of the great moments of heart thrilling literary suspense. And what I love almost as much is that what is behind the door is not a disappointment, but a wonderful adventure composed not of another world (though it might almost be so), but of brown earth and the magic of growing things. I too, after I had read about Mary Lennox, asked for my bit of earth, in which I grew lettuces and chinese lanterns and nasturtiums. Since then, I have branched out a bit in the gardening line, but that is a tale for another day.

The wardrobe door leading to Narnia is possibly the most famous door of all--and which of us can say that they have not looked longingly at the back of a cupboard (though probably not one hung with furs) and wished for it to dissolve into nothingness with snow and a lamp post beyond? My own novel, Hootcat Hill, features its own magical door--the Door to Avvallon, through which the heroine, Linnet, has to go before she can find herself and save her world. A shut door is an adventure in itself. What lies beyond the door at the top of this page? Only I can tell you--but I choose to leave it to your imagination. I'd love to know what flights of fancy you come up with, and I will send a signed copy of the new paperback of Hootcat Hill, which comes out next month, to the person who comes up with the most original answer, in 50 words or less in the comments box. I look forward to your entries. Closing date 15th March 2009.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Observations on Walking in Snow

Even if the territory upon which you walk is familiar in the green grass light of a normal day, the snowed-upon land feels different under the feet. For one thing, new snow squeaks. The snowdrops are all covered, and there are odd, unrecognisable hillocks and hummocks disguising the terrain I thought I knew so well. The wimpy weasel is snuffling and snortling at this strange powdery stuff, and the dastardly dinmont has hurried inside in a huff, because he doesn't care for his manly parts acting as a snowplough. No walk for him today, then. The wretched rams are doing their smoke impressions again, and pawing and gnawing at the hidden grass. They would rather be reindeer, who are better equipped for this sort of thing. Crossing the lawn is an adventure--there are the blackbird tracks, there the robin's small marks, like unreadable hieroglyphics on a crisp white sheet. And here, oh, here, are the long, lollopy tracks of the rabid rabbits. I see they have tried to get into the vegetable garden again, but my hard heart rejoices to see that the chicken wire behind the beech hedge has foiled them yet again. My kale and leeks are safe.

The field by the stream is silent until I reach the bridge, and then the sluggish water turns to a millrace roaring, full of snowmelt, and frothing like angry lace. There is an earthbrown eruption on the bank, all out of place in this white desert--a mole has been digging his hill despite the weather. The trees are heavy with a burden of slipping snow, but the willows are starting to turn red with sap. They know that spring is coming, even if the weather says otherwise.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Demons of Creation--and a Few Angels too

Writers are prone to demon-trouble. You'll know the problem. That ugly, demonic monster which sits, gibbering on your shoulder, close to your ear. Mine says things like: 'Always knew you were useless. Of course you can't. Whatever made you think you could? The editor will hate it.' And so on. All deeply depressing stuff, and so discouraging to the creative flow. There is, however, a way of dealing with it, which I was taught when I did something called The Hoffman Process. I've adapted it a bit, to suit myself, but this is the basic idea. It helped me. Maybe it will help you.

Be alone in a closed-door room with a blank sheet of paper, some crayons and a heavy shoe. Sit on the floor. Close your eyes. Take some deep breaths. Ommmm if you like. Visualise that monster on your shoulder. Eyeball it. Really take a good look. Open your eyes, imagine ripping it off your shoulder, fling it down and DRAW IT on your sheet of paper. Doesn't matter if you can't draw. When you've finished, close your eyes again. Listen to all those terrible things it is saying. Open your eyes again. SCRIBBLE THEM ALL OVER THE MONSTER DRAWING. Then, when they are all written out in their ghastly glory, take up your heavy shoe. Start to hit the monster piece of paper. Really bash it. Shout at it. Tell it what you think. Don't hold back. No really. Don't hold back. Inform it that you are in charge, you are the boss, and that what it says are lies. Jump up and down on it. When the monster has dissolved into small pieces of scrap paper, gather them up. Now you can burn them, and as you do, say in your own words, something like, 'you'll never have power over me again. I CAN do (whatever it is you want to do), and YOU WILL NOT WIN.' If the monster returns (and sometimes it does), I find that lifting a metaphorical shoe in a threatening gesture does the job of sending it back where it came from. Think that no sane adult would do this? Trust me. It works. I've twice been in a room of 24 adults, all doing it, and thousands, maybe tens of thousands more would back me up.

If that demon on the shoulder exists, then it follows that so too do angels. Now, this is maybe getting into contentious territory. All I will say is that I have been thankful to find my own guardian angel at my other shoulder on many occasions. It is wonderful how, if I have to go into some difficult situation, summoning up this personage to walk behind me as back-up support can make me feel a whole lot stronger. The power of the imagination? Perhaps. But then imagination is one of the most powerful tools we humans possess. Without it, we would not have the strength to dream.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Hibernation and Other Writing Stories

Bears, I often think, are the luckiest of winter creatures. Oh! how much I should like to live my creative life as if I were the writer bear of my dreams.

Come October, having led a full and satisfying summer life of writing good prose and gorging my imagination on human sights and sounds and overheard snippets of conversation, I should settle down to rest, fat and full, wrapped in warm blankets of fur. In my dark and cosy den, the world would pass me by as I slept, dreaming of the plots of novels, intricate and intriguing page turners. As the cold and frost began to bite, my now-pregnant imagination would keep me warm, walking in otherwhere fields with mythical monsters, talking with Muses, skimming through the fascinating lives of new and never-before-seen characters. My unconscious mind would be a Dagda's cauldron of invention, bubbling and boiling with an ever-renewing and nourishing brew of Idea. Then, about March, I should begin to wake, having given birth to a litter of new writing projects. They would be demanding, of course, each distinct and different in their wants and needs. But each would also be full of possibility, growing each day a little more towards maturity. Soon they would emerge onto paper, small black potent words gambolling and basking in the hot light of another writing summer, sparking an abundance of signed contracts, co-editions, editorial enthusiasm and courting. And so, eventually, the writing bear's wheel would come full circle, and the cycle begin again.

Failing this delightful scenario, an afternoon nap is a sovereign remedy for almost all winter ills. And that's my Wisdom for the Day: If you can't be a bear, take a nap. Trust me. It does wonders for the writing mind.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Blogroll Amnesty Day--Travels to Unknown Places

Any blogfule kno that February 3rd is Blogroll Amnesty Day , according to US blogger Jon Swift, 'a day when we salute all of the great smaller blogs that don't get the recognition they deserve'. Well, I didn't know, but I do now, and in the spirit of this new but rapidly burgeoning tradition, I shall share with you some of the lesser-spotted blogbirds I have discovered in my travels over the wide expanses of the internet. The ecology of the blogsphere is rich in inanity and profanity, but there is also humour and wisdom. Forinstance, there is Simon Key, the man who opened a bookshop (what could possibly go wrong?). I did an author visit to his small but bijou premises in Wood Green, London, and met Simon's partner in crime, Tim, plus a load of lovely and intelligent kids. Simon didn't blog about it, but I won't hold that against him because he's very very funny and he makes me laugh.

Then there's Candy Gourlay's Notes from the Slushpile about trying to get published in children's books. Again funny, informative, and a good reminder of the perils of writing life. As I am a writer, naturally I gravitate towards other author blogs--perhaps as a sort of desire to remind myself that I am not alone in this world of words. Two more that are worth visiting are lovely novelist Emma Darwin at This Itch Of Writing and the inestimable and wondrous hellgoddess herself, Robin McKinley whose daily posts on handbell ringing, roses, writing, hellhounds and the vagaries of weather are a joy and a pleasure. Last but not least, comes the Bookwitch who educates and entertains, and with whom I have many short but meaningful comment conversations.

So, lovely readers, please support BRA day, broaden your horizons and travel to places you might never otherwise have discovered. Above all, have fun.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Celtic Spring--A Writer's Celebration

We writers need all the signs of encouragement we can get, so today, I am happy to tell you, is the first day of Spring in the Celtic calendar. Today is Imbolc, Candlemass, The Feast of St Brigid, (or, for my US readers, Groundhog Day). But the name I like best for 2nd February is The Feast Of New Ewes' Milk. Humour me here, and try to imagine yourself back a thousand years, in those far off druidical days.

The time of midwinter solstice is long past, and the celebrations and feasting are a distant memory. Food is scarce, and the weather miserable. Your hut (if you have one) lets in the wind however you plug the cracks. The fire smokes, and every day you have to find fuel to keep it going or you will die. But there is hope. Today there are signs of spring. The ewes are huddling and baaing, their breath a plume of smoky noise in the freezing air. Suddenly there is a new note amongst them, a high, plaintive mewling. The first lamb is here, and tonight there will be new milk to drink, rich and creamy and full of life.

Most of us, who live in warm and comfortable houses, many in urban settings, are blind to the small signs which mark the turning of the seasons. But to our ancestors, the rhythms of birth and death, new buds and falling leaves, planting and harvest, were the things that framed their lives. I lived in the town for a while, but I am a country girl by blood and breeding and inclination, and so today it pleases me that when I stand outside in the driving snow I can hear that plaintive sound coming from Farmer Haystack's barn over the way. The Feast of New Ewes' Milk is truly here--a time for me of new beginnings, growth, unfurling. And a perfect celebration for a writer in need of hope for the future.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Kerridwen the Tekel Goddess

I've always wanted a tekel. Heaven knows why, because they are disodedient hellhounds with minds entirely set on escape and killing innocent fauna. But there you are, no accounting for taste, and besides, they are also dogs of immense character and charm. Last year, having lost our ancient and loving elderly labrador, I set out on a search for one. Tekels are not easy to come by--at least not the sort I wanted, which was sporty, hairy, un-showdog, and not inbred. Then I saw an advert. Tekel pups for Sale. Sadly, that litter had gone (they are remarkably popular and rare enough that pups sell quickly). But the lovely German-breeder-from-Wales promised me a bitch from her next lot. Kerridwen was born at the beginning of the month, and I have just received the picture at the top of this post. I think I am already in love. The breeder's names all begin with K, so I chose Kerridwen, Welsh uber-goddess and shape-shifter. She will certainly be worshipped in this house!
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