Coping Together: Carers and Eating Disorders

01/09/2014 at 19:45 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I remember the look on my mothers’ face, as the doctor uttered the words that would change our lives forever. Frozen, all colours and none, it was a diamond-expression, with every conceivable emotion flitting from one facet to another. It was autumn 2001, with a darkening sky and bitter winds, and I shivered in a thin top. There was a method behind this – a little tip I had picked up from reading a celebrity magazine. My mother, of course, had no idea, and I wasn’t about to tell her of all the neat little tricks I had developed over the summer of chaos, when my life spun down as the golden leaves outside, crackling now with a riming of ice.

After leaving compulsory education and starting at a new college (with the fear of loss nesting in my chest, watching others pull ahead in classes where I had once set the pace), getting involved in my first “serious” relationship and discovering that the abuse from the year before had dulled my appetite for sex – not that I was about to admit any of this – I had flung out my hands for some kind of equilibrium. An anchor. Anorexia had quietly slipped in and wrapped chill little fingers around mine; told me things, about how dieting for my school prom and upping my fitness regime, would make me a better person. Not just feel better, but be better. I could finally get some order into my life; concentrate, hard, on such things, while the rest of the world went on smoking and drinking and eating and losing itself in flab.

Such an innocent arrogance, a thin-ice superiority. I am above and beyond you – look how I disappear.

Listening to my mother’s voice crack, as she asked the doctor how long my treatment would be, I hunched over my chair with white knuckles. I was cold under the skin, in a way that no fire or radiator could warm; there were red welts to prove it. A slimy fish-oil guilt went sliding through my mind. I remember that vividly, fourteen years on. My Ma had not worked while caring for her family, me with two siblings; now we were growing up, and she had taken what opportunities came her way – especially after the divorce, when she learned her own mind. She had become the co-partner of a private firm, and was progressing at a rate which – looking back, with the heavy heart of retrospect – I wish I had been well enough, old enough, aware enough, to fully appreciate. There are a lot of things I have allowed to slip by without notice, being strung out on anorexia and its symptoms. The very last thing I wanted to do was deprive Ma of any business prospects, any chances of promotion. Most of all, that keen look on her face, whenever she talked about work. She looked great, too. A handful of boys in school often remarked upon it. They were only friends, only teasing – and still. And still.

But in that surgery, she was my Ma, full of the cold-fire defiance and steely tone (masking her fear) which I remember so well. I often wonder if I got the dagger-chin from her, lifted to face whatever challenge presents itself. My ex will know what I mean.
I was curled over like the leaf husks, aching with hunger right into my bones, with a low-grade sneer that told everyone quite plainly that I had no idea of the very real threat to my life. It didn’t matter when the doctor told me that this particular mental disorder, anorexia nervosa, held the dubious claim of the highest mortality rate among depressive illnesses. All I could focus upon was the white static in my head, telling me that they were going to make me fat. Even more unloveable, unnoticeable; while paradoxically, the shivering fear inside wanted just this, and more. It was, and always has been, the push-pull of wanting to be recognized and appreciated, while craving the fate of the blue ice outside, ready to vanish when you breathe upon it. Fade out of sight, out of mind, the control of others.

The part of me that was still Me, fretted over becoming a burden to my mother. The build-up plan that the GP was trotting out – the medication for depression, which he was ready to prescribe – was not going to be cheap. Ma supported us both financially, since I was no longer well enough to work my part-time job, and college was already dwindling into the lamplight haven. The Thing crouching in my head, didn’t allow for intrusions.

It also didn’t want me to have a carer. This would mean constant surveillance, the thwarting of starvation and purging symptoms (frenetic exercise, and shivering in thin clothes, being only the start of the coil.) The bigger picture – which I could not see, dialled down on these absorbing details – would be weight gain, of course, but with the parallel therapy treatment which would examine whatever thoughts and emotions resurfaced. For any of this to happen, I would need to be placed under my mother’s care, since she was the only person available at the time (though I would go on to wreak havoc in my Nanna’s comfortable routines, to give Ma a break for a bit – even the most beloved relatives are not spared, and anorexia has fingers that like to pinch and needle. I still grieve over that time, though our bond is now stronger for it.) All the carefully-learned, unwillingly-met responsibilities of early independence – choosing food, and its preparation, running under the lamplight each evening – would be taken away, allowing Ma to protect me from the panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive rituals which had begun to appear in earnest. We didn’t twig at the time how much this would be weight-relative. Had I known what the following two years would bring –

No, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.

It’s only now, over a decade later, that I can look back on the reality of that situation. We were muddling through. The fear and tension were palpable in the house, with only the two of us living there, and so often going around in circles of constant-questions-asked (“how many calories in this? can I rest now? No, I’ve not done enough, I’ve eaten too much.”) Ma kept on working to support us, often pulling such wearying shifts; while struggling to understand how the child she had raised and nurtured from a baby, was now slowly killing herself. She told me some years on – when we were able to look back on those blue-black days with rueful smiles – that at my worst, she would wake each morning and expect me to be dead, either by my own hand, or the physical side-effects of anorexia.

Imagine living with that, day in and day out.

By 2003, the  illness had become too contentious. Our mother-daughter relationship was frayed to its edge, despite the help of other family members. I trusted only Ma, and my Nanna, to look after me “properly”, and then only in the (decreasing) lucid moments. Her own life had become a coil of watching for my self-destructive behavioural patterns. She had lost weight, and I noticed, with a venom that makes me cringe to remember. All of the normal hunger cues were long dead, replaced by a continuous gnawing starvation, which sparked into panic around meal-times (yet more questions, frantic pacing, surreptitious trips to the bathroom to throw away food. She knew it. She was just too tired to stop me.) My skin was full of holes, with patches in my hair. We tip-toed around each other in the house; I hated having visitors, because they disrupted my routines of exercise (I rarely went outside by then.) The world seemed a lost cause.

An inverted kaleidoscope.

The worry and strain of living in that state of constant alert, left Ma exhausted. She had little time, or patience, for others. Anorexia had driven us into a spiral of negativity. Her love for me – at her own admittance – was sometimes overshadowed by hatred for the Thing in my head. As Granddad once put it, “Hate the act, not the person.”
It was becoming increasingly difficult to do this; to discern the real Me from the illness. That was when we knew it couldn’t go on, that outside intervention had to step in. The guilt tore Ma apart at the time, but I know she did the bravest thing imaginable. She walked away, letting the professionals take over.

Of course I wanted to make her happy – I hated seeing her upset, but the guilt associated with this – the denial of hope that I could recover – drove me further down into symptoms. “I can’t please anyone.” Deadening all emotions, I became convinced that my mother would be better off without me.
In light of this, my local psychiatric team broke the cycle at the prevalent moment, before the thread was cut. I would receive care in a neutral environment, away from outside influences, where staff were trained to cope with anorexia and is barbed comments, to look out for its sneaky ways. This would give my mother a break, while effecting some actual change to my physical and mental well-being.

Recovery from an eating disorder does not begin or end overnight. It is a day-by-day, year-on-year battle for many, with each case a process of rediscovering the true self, in conjunction with therapy to root out the cause = effect of underlying factors. These will be reflective of the circumstances and personal history unique to each individual; though in terms of how symptoms are presented, the song remains the same.

It’s always worth considering the involvement of carer(s) in the recovery process. To my knowledge and belief, no one with an eating disorder can effectively contain and manage its symptoms alone, healing without help – the love of a partner, the spur of a close friend, the attention of a teacher or guidance counsellor. There are in/out patient units available across the country, with staff who are able to deal with mental illness in a professional capacity. For a carer, it is a matter of choice, of emotions, of instinctive protection. It is learning the basics from scratch.

I would certainly not be where I am today – able to function independently, work full-time, socialize, write articles like this one – without the support of family and friends, who continued to pop in to see me whenever possible (even if I didn’t want to see them), lending my mother a helping hand, reminding me of who I was in school. It’s been a long process, and at times, I think some were scared off by what they saw – afraid that they would do more damage, perhaps. Others continued to see the person locked beneath the ice; there was the boy from school, the one I loved and never found as my own, who would text silly stuff to make me laugh while in hospital. He also invited me out to house parties, and knew when to keep quiet if I just felt – for once – like talking.

It is of the utmost importance to remember the child, the partner, the individual, with character traits and preferences wholly separate from the eating disorder.

Significant improvements have been made to the level of support available for carers – giving strength to the ones who must be strong – since my time in hospital, with the internet playing an important and interactive role in disseminating advice, both personal and professional. Nothing gets down to the heart of a matter like a shared experience; family members, those closely associated with someone suffering from an eating disorder, can feel less alone when speaking out on carefully moderated forums that are (rightly) kept separate from those available for sufferers. Here, discussions on topical issues can take place, with the guidance of mods, in a safe environment built upon mutual trust. As a matter of principle, I have never asked my mother for her personal thoughts / emotional reactions concerning those days when she looked after me; all the information I do know, was volunteered some years later, when our relationship was on more steady ground, and I was in a secure enough state of mind to deal with the sometimes painful truth.

Organizations such as the UK-based charity Beat, host message board forums and online tutorial workshops, with the aim of raising awareness of signs and symptoms to watch out for, while providing crucial advice on how to maintain as relatively normal a life as possible around the eating disorder. I say “crucial”, because – above all else – life must go on. With convoluted routines linked to the practise of disordered eating (starvation, binging) and any subsequent purging (exercise, vomiting, etc.), a sufferer may isolate themselves in such a way that is detrimental to their relationships. It is important to recognize this for what it is, and to reassure the sufferer that they are a firm part of a unit, and not alone in recovery.

The person with an eating disorder is likely to experience periods of depression, anger, hopelessness and despair. Home may feel like a battleground with parents or partners feeling that they have become the enemy. It is important to remember it is the disorder that is taking over, and not the person who is changing.”

To this day, I am still somewhat at odds with the solitude I keep. In analysing preferences and tendencies, a fear-lockdown often occurs, should I question too much of what I do. I am left wondering how much of this is now a lifestyle, something so deeply ingrained as to be accepted for a faux-part of my nature. Would I have been a more sociable person, without the ED? Is it even worth asking this question? For the most part, the routines are linked to exercise – I am easier with eating now, having let go of a great many habits and compulsive routines while in my last relationship, though more out of necessity than any real desire to do so. Yet it was the impetus needed. They are not missed, and have not crept back in now that I live alone.

I was four years out of hospital when I met my former partner, Jimmi. Having edged back onto the dating scene through websites and social networking (these held a “distancing” effect, both reassuring and useful, in terms of maintaining “safe parallel realities” until I was able to cope with actual contact), I perceived myself to be close enough to an evolved form of myself, to try giving affection to another. The truth was felt in a low gradient of ego, a mind still woven about with thorns; I struggled to remember who I had been prior to the illness. What had I liked to do? Who did I respect, look up to, aspire to be? When I should have been trawling art galleries, going to the cinema, messing about with friends, I had instead been shuttled to and fro between psychiatric wards. Some quite formative years, as well as certain historical and cultural world events, will always be as black holes in my memory.

In 2008, using the internet for tentative steps out into the world beyond my room, it became habit to latch onto people so as to gain access to their thoughts and opinions, their preferences and dislikes. I had nothing of my own character to bring to the table, or so it felt at the time – I blagged it a good deal. This is probably true of us all, to some extent. Again, I must pull myself up – am I being too negative on myself? But I do feel like a social amoeba, sometimes.

Jimmi became something of an educative and influential force in my life. I absorbed his recommendations for literature, music, films and art, while giving back what I could – though it never felt like enough, and I lived in fear that he would look for someone more interesting, with a greater awareness of the world and its people. The latter, I still didn’t trust to any great extent, but he was a keen people-watcher, drawing inspiration from the idyllic pub gardens we sat in, the random encounters we often had while out and about. He would pull some contextual snippet out of the air, relevant to the situation, stirring up an old flicker inside me – that competitive streak, long buried inside a pillar of anorexia’s ice. I wanted my mind to work as swiftly, to be able to link one thought or concept to another in such a way that would make him laugh.

I went looking for literature that he had not read, watched films he had not seen – all of them parallel to his preferences. With each weekend visit, our discussions were fleshed out into debates, as I began setting out my own analyses, voicing opinions. I’m not sure how much he was aware of my hesitancy, the constant gnawing fear of upsetting him, or making a prat of myself. Again, this is probably true of any fledgling relationship, but it gave me more than a few sleepless nights at first … until I became comfortable enough to believe that he wanted me for Me. This would take a while, with stormy scenes between – misinterpretations, passive-aggressive warfare. His patience was balanced on a knife edge, with my inability to voice worries. Instead, he interpreted negativity through watching my body language (and is probably grinning in remembrance, if he’s reading this now) and my eating/exercise habits. No sooner had any upset filtered its way down, then meals would become a battleground and walks a forced march. My weight was a fairly safe barometer for moods.

Over time – and out of necessity, for the survival of our relationship – I learned to speak out with my voice, as opposed to symptoms. His company outweighed the need to keep silent.

I gained access to J’s mind, itself a rather private place. His interests became my interests, and it wasn’t long before I found myself thinking less and less about food. Hunger cues returned, with weight increases that saw the static-white in my head reduced to a background burr. This is not to say that the low-level moods and symptoms disappeared overnight – at times, they would rear up like wild beasts, particularly in response to a sudden change of plan or a moment of spontaneity, where my instinctive reaction was (and sometimes still is) to feel under pressure, as though control has been taken away. The illness saw J as a rival for my attention, and that nasty-bitch side of myself gave him some hard times. Our weekends together were always caught up in long-distance hikes, as compensation for what I saw as the laziness-crime of having slept in that morning, or stretching out to read in his back garden.

To put this into context – I was still underweight, with a disordered mindset, and no actual therapy in place. Having chosen to cut all ties with my mental health team, to go it alone in recovery, I was pinballing from one distraction to another, while maintaining a weight that felt “safe.” Our long walks required stamina – I needed to eat more, to reduce the gym exercise, so I could keep up with his strides. In winter, when poor circulation caused my blue fingertips to turn purple, then white, he would hold my hands and breathe on them to make the pain go away, while encouraging me to put on a bit more weight, so we wouldn’t have to keep making the stops.

Though we are no longer together, Jimmi is still one of my best friends, and continues to be an inspiration – which means he kicks my arse when he knows I’m dithering. Though I certainly had no intention of allowing him to become my “carer” from the outset, at times it was inevitable. There was only so much I could conceal. It is a mark of his patience – and the lasting effect of his company, on my mindset – that our relationship survived beyond the first few difficult months.
When I asked him to give his own perspective of those five years together, he responded with the style that has always been reminiscent of a leather jacket, whisky and cigars.

In similar fashion, I asked a Twitter friend, Brent Allard, to tell me of his experiences with anorexia. As is so often the case, a random fact dropped into conversation had set off ripples. I had mentioned my (past and present) experiences with anorexia nervosa, whereupon he began to tell me of a former girlfriend who also suffered from its effects. Setting out a rough guideline of questions based around personal memories of behavioural patterns, and research into the study of eating disorders, I sought to frame Brent’s unique insight in such a way that would give a broader perspective of anorexia, and its effect upon relationships.

While my mother loves me by default (if I can go on assumptions here), her caring for me in those dark days might be considered a prerequisite of our familial bond.
Where my former partner, and Brent Allard are concerned, the responsibility originated from a different point of care. I’d like to give them a voice, on this blog.

To assume that love alone has the power to cure anorexia et al, would be a gross underestimation of the influence a mental disorder can have on a person’s life. First and foremost, they must want to be well themselves – this requires finding an internal equilibrium that I cannot even begin to describe here, as much as this sounds like a cop-out. I still do not know how I survived, where others didn’t. Hitting rock-bottom in 2003, it seemed that there would be no escape, until the duty of care was taken from my mother’s hands – she had done all that she could. The physical dangers of an eating disorder are very real, while the underlying dark waters of depression can bring on a relapse, into symptoms perhaps abandoned years before, thought forgotten. It is then that the network of support found in friends, family, colleagues, lovers, teachers – the relationships that make up a life – are as necessary for recovery as psychiatric treatment. No one should feel that they are fighting alone.

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Writing Reality: Dialogue, and the Subtlety of Subtext

02/12/2013 at 06:01 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , )


A quote pulled from my friend @drewchial’s Twitter feed inspired this latest entry:
“It helps to be hyper-aware of what makes each author’s voice unique.”

This got me thinking about characterization, dialogue and subtext; what tricks an author might use to keep the threads independent of one another, as well as individual to each person being portrayed.

I openly confess, I’m not much of a dialogue writer. This may stem from the fact I take less interest in the speech of people, than what they actually do to back up the words. The natural world is full of harsh truths, which I adhere to more closely than social interaction. Nature pulls no punches.
As a kid, I’d find ways to avoid speech, preferring to deal with what I’d later learn – as an English language student – to be paralinguistic features. Body language basically, but also the areas of tone and pitch – not so much what a person says, as how. they say it. I’m forever looking for the shift in tone, the change in stance, which might save a heck load of time (and face) if read correctly. That being said, I don’t claim to be an expert, and some people are more self-aware than others, in terms of what they “leak” out.

This can be made applicable to your characters; their intentions, their framing narrative, open dialogue and encrypted speech. The dance they weave around one another.

I like to know where my characters are coming from in terms of setting and origins, their lifestyle circumstances and social interactions. Dialogue is a great clue-dropper, here. Since writers deal solely in words, without the wider options of visual / audio identification, it’s of paramount importance that the dialogue and narrative structure be held accountable when a scene is set, a message put across.
These are a few tricks I use, gleaned from personal experience and other authors, when presenting a character’s identity in speech.

Accent / Regional Dialect

This can be a double-edged sword. Used sparingly, the odd regional accent/dialect inflection can enhance a character’s voice to the point where the audience may “hear” them, know the arenas they frequent. Just a sprinkling here and there, as with Iain Banks’ quite marvelous The Crow Road:

“‘Aw, it’s just incredible,’ I told them. ‘Her mum told me; Aunt Charlotte. Bit of a nutter, but okay. I mean totally aff her heid really, but anyway…’
‘Aw; runs in the family, does it, Prentice?’ Dean asked.
‘Naw; she’s not a McHoan..'” – pgs. 61/62, The Crow Road

Banks chose to keep these Scottish inflections mainly within the perimeters of dialogue. Though the novel spans several POVs and time-frames, the narrative structure of each character remains for the most part, unbroken by regional identity. It makes for a universal smoothness when reading. Some authors may swear by a full regional immersion, but I’m not one of them.

In terms of field research for accent and dialect, the internet holds a wealth of sites dedicated to the compiling of audio files, for the preservation of sometimes ancient generational speech patterns:

The Speech Accent Archive, has files from across the world, allowing listeners a general rule-of-thumb appreciation of phonetic inflections on the English language, based upon country and region. Also included are descriptions of each speaker’s native origins and other languages spoken, for consideration of how these may add to intonation / inflection. The clips run on a Quicktime plug-in.

I find this site handy for working on narrative and dialogue structures – particularly when filtered through another personal perception. For example, a newcomer in town might remark upon the local staccato vocals or rounded consonants; they may call attention to a word used for an object, which differs from their own (e.g. I know an alleyway, in my Southern dialect, as a twitten; a friend of mine, having spent time in the North, predominantly around the city of York, uses the word snickelway.)

To avoid using the same descriptions, and to liven things up a bit in terms of describing a character’s voice, I like to reference the sound –> colour/shape synaesthesia that permeates my everyday appreciation of speech. A man with a soft vowel-baritone voice, more often than not appears as honey-coloured in my mind.

The BBC voice recordings go deeper still, focusing primarily on the UK: “People talking about language – slang, dialect, taboo words, accents. Other clips cover all sorts of subjects and simply offer a flavour of how we talk today.”

These are of course generalizations, and no one person will sound just like another – origins, historical context and lifestyle, will all factor in. Interesting to note in The Crow Road, is Banks’ choice to employ more accent/dialect twists when the young protagonists are all soused. This is most prevalent in the dialogue of main protagonist, Prentice. Contrast this (reasonably) sober dialogue,

“Really, Ashley, I didn’t think you’d take it so melodramatically. It’s only shop-lifting, after all. Just one silly book, too; worse things happen at C & A’s.” – page 273

to when his temper is stoked on a sensitive issue, and under alcohol’s blurry veil:
“I am not like ma dad!” I yelled.” – page 64, The Crow Road

Try this when writing your own dialogue; if a scene involves heightened tension, does a character’s accent thicken in anger, or when upset? Have they tried to repress it over time, or was it diluted through speech convergence? This is especially applicable if you’re writing a screenplay, or are focusing particularly on interactions between social classes. To use the same inflections, utterances and dialect patterns as those around you, suggests a comfortably habitual state (as in, picking up an accent while travelling, or settling somewhere new) or a desire to conform, to fit in. The same applies vice versa. How does the speech a character uses around others, reflect their relationship(s) with them? When they head back to their original home, is the new style of speech dropped or used as a weapon, to distance a character from his/her roots?

Paralinguistic features and Subtext

I’m quite fond of studying body language. Not only does it come in handy in the real world; it adds that certain nuance of “Show don’t Tell”, as a character depicts their intentions through physical actions / facial expressions, rather than what comes out of their mouths:

“Ash suggested heading back and to the house, and either having some coffee or getting some sleep. Her wide eyes looked tired. I agreed coffee might be an idea. The last thing I remember is insisting I had whisky in my coffee, then falling asleep in the kitchen, my head on Ash’s shoulder, mumbling about how I’d loved dad, and how I’d loved Verity, too, and I’d never find another one like her, but she was a heartless bitch. No she wasn’t, yes she was, no she wasn’t, it was just she wasn’t for me, and if I had any sense I’d go for somebody who was a kind and gentle friend… Why do we always love the wrong people?
Ash, silent beneath me, above me, just patted my shoulder and laid her head on mine.” – pgs.366/367, The Crow Road

The areas I’ve highlighted, speak a thousand unvocalised truths about real love. Ashley is tired, yet she’s willing to stay up and listen to Prentice ramble (about another woman, no less.) What we are prepared to put up with, are prepared to do for a loved one in actual actions, as opposed to lip service paid – these can colour a character’s narrative. What do they say in subtext to one another; who chooses to leave first in a romantic tryst, and does their body language reflect reluctance or eagerness to escape? Do actions mirror what comes out of a character’s mouth – what does this say about their temperament, and how might this affect audience perception of them? How much will they reveal through narrative POV? First person, in particular, can be complex and damning, as well as wholly engaging; how self-aware are they, of their effect on others when they speak and act the way they do? How can this be reflected in an internal monologue?

Look to the films and TV programmes you love, for clues on how to stage emotional impact. Where do the breath-spaces between highly emotive words, lie? What tonal shift occurs when a character doesn’t pay up the goods with a straight answer, or indeed, skirts right around it? And then again, how can subtext and actions bring two characters closer, without need for dialogue?

In this case, all you need to see are the brightening eyes of Charlotte as Bob approaches; and that look passed between them, before the hug. A thousand silent words, right there.

How does a character’s reactions around others, reflect circumstance, relationship, personality? Do they fold their arms and pout, cross their arms/legs and shift their feet away, shutter their faces down, when someone is disagreeable to their senses? (parental nagging, lover’s tiff, questioning for a crime.) What emotions inadvertently leak from them (or not) when faced with an agreeable proposition, or the inference of one – open hands, body turned towards the other character(s), leaning in to close physical distance? A scene can ping with heightened emotion, with a few paralinguistic features laid around dialogue. They also help to break up what may appear as a monotonous flow of speech, as well as making a neat substitute for unnecessary dialogue tags:

“But Matt had grabbed Will by the shirtsleeve and waved the shovel in the air to keep Elinor at bay. My brother wouldn’t take anything. He wouldn’t want anything that belonged to you.” – page 44, The Probable Future, Alice Hoffman

The speaker is Matt, for the new paragraph is his (essential for delineating character identity) and the dialogue appears after his action.

“I chucked a few more pebbles. “Well, it isn’t a very good example to us youngsters, is it?”
“What’s that got to do with the price of sliced bread?”
“Eh?” I looked at her. “Pardon?”
“You’re not really trying to tell me that young people today look to their elders for an example, are you, Prentice?”
I grimaced. ‘Well…’ I said.” – page 10, The Crow Road

That final personal pronoun and tag, seem superfluous to needs here. There are plenty of clues dropped as to who the speaker is, from new paragraph alignments at each shift of dialogue, and facial motions.

As with all aspects of characterization, I can’t emphasise enough the power of people-watching. Become self-aware of your own voice and views; keep a close eye on how often they break that fourth wall, so your characters don’t run the risk of becoming your literary proxies. Go out into the world with open ears and notepad/audio recorder at the ready. You never know when a prize bit of dialogue might be dropped.
Most of all – watch for what people don’t say with their mouths, but give away with their feet, their open palms, their darkened eyes.

 photo thecrowroad_zpsdda190c3.jpg

Dedicated to the late Iain Banks – a master of dialogue, and unspoken truths.

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Writing Reality: Location and Time

04/11/2013 at 05:45 (Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Listening to Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, I’m always struck by a particular stanza:

Have you seen the old man
Outside the Seaman’s Mission
Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care

It reminds me of what first drew me to the city, embedded it in my heart – apart from the obvious beauty of a silken blue scarf on the horizon, one that all too soon knots itself about the throat in a toxic beauty of pollution. I used to travel into London with my mother to meet my father after work, so my memories are mostly of windows set into antiquated walls that blurred past the train, their golden glow seeming like diamond eyes to my excited ones, though the lives held behind would be working late into an evening full of blue-black shadows.

As I’ve got older, the shine of the city hasn’t diminished, only shifted perspective. I often take walking trips across its myriad streets, one borough to another, all alive with individuality and the traits of whoever happens to live there. Though it’s come to my attention more recently (as a writer), that an environment can inform the personality habits/quirks of a resident, as much as the latter influences the state of their home/workplace.

So while wandering, I take in the welcome glow of polished windows and pub signs, the huddled figures in doorways they can never hope to enter but which offer temporary shelter from the wind. There are those who’ll return to the same park bench each day on their lunch break, out of comfortable habit and to feel a niche of Home; or perhaps to escape the mundane nature of this. Depending on what they have to hand, what their circumstances are, they’ll feed or fend off the ever-present pigeon clouds that alight and clatter away by turns, in that bird’s daze of checkered tree-light and traffic noise.

All these impressions, so many more, tangle me up whenever I visit. I find my eyes lingering on the hidden places of the world, the random moments and meetings, rather than rising as they once did to the glaring lights and tourist eyecandy; the teeth of stone, steel and glass. Hooked alley corners, small pockets of greenery, the shadows that smell of a thousand borrowed cuisines; though these often ring with a binman’s calls, and provide more shelter for that hunched shape of one still evading what had them leave their old life behind
(if they had one at all.)

All under an indifferent sky. Freedom is a hard-won prize.

I use the city as an example for its diversity, but you’ll have your own influences, your own icons and symbolism. When writing a location, framing a fictional narrative about a setting in which your characters exist, how often do you stop to wonder about its influence upon their lives – direct and indirect – how it informs their movements, lifestyle choices, emotional responses?

There are things I’ve had to consider in more depth, when writing my novel. As it’s set mainly in one town (fictional, “Reighton”) and is caught between timeframes of past and present (filtered through two first-person narratives, with additional input from secondary sources) it’s become necessary for me to know that environment inside out. I use that analogy again, of taking a clock to pieces to know its mechanism – should the need arise, I have the same resources to hand for taking Reighton apart, assessing how a relevant plot point can be made where it links to a contextual detail.

Just as characterization hinges upon traits and layered memories, a location may develop a personality of its own. Opinions differ greatly about Reighton, depending on a character’s stance in life and more importantly, what impact the town has had upon them. There are families with generational roots deep in its history, who feel a frustrated affection for its once-great past and sadness for its seemingly stark future. Their ancestors were the pivotal force behind Reighton’s conception, first as a farming community along the river Rei, then – with the arrival of a powerful outside influence – as a multifaceted, prosperous clayworks. The latter effectively put Reighton on the map; it became part of a successful commuter belt.

When the clay business collapsed, those families whose lives had twined about it were left to the whim of the council and any investors who happened to pass through, seeing a trick of hasty housing for yet more commuters. The factories and warehouses now lie barren, the old rail line is a playground for the children, who most likely will never know full-time employment. The once-bustling town is, in its present setting, a shadow of itself; this breeds apathy in some, a fierce desire to escape in others … and in a few of the kid-gangs, a somewhat delusional belief that because the outside world has no need for them, they can in turn inwards and become small Gods.

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To achieve all of these plot points – to give them logos as well as pathos – I look for what has influenced my own life. A year spent on the Dole in a town of dying economy, well, that certainly features heavily; as do those childhood days of playing down the abandoned rail line in my old home town.

I wanted to find how these environmental issues might dictate certain character behaviours. In Reighton, lack of work has seen a rise in petty theft and muggings, but also an increase in the tight community ethic. It’s very much an Us vs. Them scenario, with the weary locals – after several decades of declining means and a ream of broken promises from their council – near to breaking point. Morale is low, community-spirit is high, and a thin copper wire of tension runs around the whole town, from the more affluent East side (where the commuter-belt / wealthier locals are, in newer estates or the antiquated mansions of their ancestors), to the impoverished West side of the river, in which many a generation of ex-clayworkers has lived and died.

I pulled influences from my old town, inverting the history of a local parish where I once lived, to add credible details to the history of Reighton. Ridgewood, in the East Sussex town of Uckfield, served as the location for a clayworking pottery through the 19th/20th centuries. As a child, I had no concept of this remarkably layered history; what my friends and I saw were the remnants, two great pits left in the ground for us to play hide-and-seek in, Murder in the Dark, and to sled across when the snow fell on the slopes. My memory of that time is rich with the bittersweet smell of hawthorns, and the wide bowl of open sky; standing on the rim of the larger pit and often finding old discarded hand tools; the proud possessions of whoever once toiled over the clay.

It was a fine playground for any child, and has since been converted into a Millennium Green nature reserve, to preserve it for future generations. Its past is now being brought to light, as when I grew old enough to find an interest in the finer details of my locality, there was little to come by. Said details have made up much of the framework for both my novel’s narrative, and the foundations on which they stand. My local library’s archives were also a priceless resource – use your own wherever possible, particularly to learn the structuring of a town across generations, to gain an insight into environmental and economical patterns (e.g. many towns begin life alongside a river, arable land and/or a major trade-link road.)

Often, character lifestyle choices will be based upon what they’ve learned through a progression of experiences – parental influence, education, home and work environments. A series of locations may well mirror this.

“Mickey was about twenty-six, short, with a small moustache on a pasty face. The romance and glory of his life were behind him. The romance was still the warm East, where he had been a clerk in a rubber firm, and the glory had been the divine facility of living, women and drinking. Now he was unemployed, and wore an overcoat along the hard, frozen plains of Earl’s Court, where he lived on and with his mother… he was famous for his drunkenness locally, being particularly welcome in drinking circles… because by his excesses, he put his companions in countenance, making their own excesses seem small in comparison.” – Pg 42, Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton.

Symbolism can be brought into the act too, once a fictional setting becomes as well-known to you as the reality you walk through; these shadowy messages start to appear in the corners of the bigger picture. Huddled shapes in the doorways of grand houses; a newspaper of today, blowing up the road being built for tomorrow; and indeed, the succession of wealth unto celebrity, an endless parade of tomorrows for as long as both hold out:

“No one wore costumes on the night of her engagement party at the Racquet & Tennis Club, but in the ballroom of that club, that limestone manse sitting like a sphinx on Park Avenue … you didn’t need costumes to have a masque ball. Everyone knew their role and played it… Their names were written in gold leaf on mahogany plaques across the walls of the changing rooms, Whitneys, Phippses, Rockefellers, and they bathed naked together in the Turkish bath and played obscure racquet sports passed down from Bourbon kings and sealed billion-dollar deals with clinks of glasses over lunch. And at these parties, if you were not a member, you were a guest and set your face stern to conceal your awe. You were solemn to foil discovery of the wonder that mugged you of your confidence… then into the grand ballroom that invited you to look down on who you had been just moments before, on the street below. You hated loving being there, and you struggled to conceal yourself, and all of a sudden, you were in costume.” – Pgs 1-2, Mergers and Acquisitions, Dana Vachon.

One of my characters, Garth Hakken Sr., is forever in and out of prison. He is part of the forgotten Reighton generations on the West side, but chose not to go quietly into poverty – his is a life of scrap-metal and shady deals, to keep his family fed. His acclimatization to both this darker side of life, and the legal consequences set against him, inform his thoughts and behaviour. He walks with his head tucked in, as a boxer will to avoid a punch; his tall frame is somewhat curved over, movements neat and confined, to avoid drawing unnecessary attention and out of sheer practicality – he’s spent a good deal of time in a cramped cell.

Do your characters aspire to fit in on a social level, or – due to the level of danger in their surroundings – have they learned to act upon instinct and disappear, before fear takes over? To what extent do socio-economical matters impact upon their lives? How have circumstances changed them from the blush of youth, into the pale years of age; do they wear these marks of another time for all to see, a proud symbol diminished by the world’s neglect?

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Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care

These are considerations to make – running parallel with research for a setting/environment – for potential advancement of plot, based upon what drives a character to react as they do.

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Writing Reality: Method Writing (Through their Eyes)

14/10/2013 at 05:45 (Method Writing, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I am a method writer.

It’s hardly a new concept; a literary adaptation of the emotionally charged technique used by thespians on stage and screen. Method actors bounce light off of the mirror of personal inflection, bringing into focus the characters they wish to embody as well as portray; they seek “imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with unique and original behavior,” brought about by “performances grounded in the human truth of the moment”.

Which isn’t a million miles away from what writers are after.

Some film directors are known to use/have used versions of the Method, to induce a necessary emotional state in their cast. While working on The Shining, Stanley Kubrick “had his cast watch Eraserhead, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, to put them in the right frame of mind.” This is channeling external creativity, as a form of pseudo-mood input.

Before settling to write, I’ll use the same technique, as well as several others to create a mood within myself that’s relative to a scene and/or narrative voice. Creative outlets – music, film, literature – of similar genres and mood, can be filtered through personal memories to tap into an induced emotional state. The audience only sees the end results, of course. The inspiration stays hidden in the wings, whispering cues.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t maintain a steady mood pattern. We tend to oscillate between whatever’s going on in the immediate day-to-day, and the sort of abstracts that prey on anyone’s mind (existence, climate change, world domination, economy, etc.) That’s before we even get close to creative input, either imposed on us or sought out to entertain ourselves. Picking up a book and reading a few passages on my work break, can cause a U-turn for whatever mood I was in – from wistful (fantasy) to dialed-down sharp (science fiction, crime thriller). Which is fine, so long as I wasn’t intending to preserve the former mood for later writing.

Contrary to popular belief, the Method doesn’t need 24 hour submersion. Prior to writing, I’ll have a “build-up” of mood and character, and will become very careful who and what I allow in through the filters. There’s no call to be rude; it’s just a Fading Out from the real world for an hour or so, prior to and during writing. This is “closing the door”, and for me it’s not only about shutting off external noise. It’s damage limitation where mood is concerned; whatever I hear on the news, read in a book or feel for a song, might colour my writing with an unintended atmosphere. Working with synaesthesia, where sound and mood appear in colours, there’s always the chance that I’ll inadvertently write a character’s “warm” mood too “cool” because of a blue song going on a loop in my head.

A difficult day, a trying time of life, can make all the difference between a good and bad writing experience. If you’re aware of emotional flux, take responsibility for your moods and writing – work them around each other. Work them to your advantage, to avoid writing-blackout. I tend to keep several projects on-the-go at once, all of which have different genres, setting and tone. This allows for a margin of success; more chance of hitting the right note at any point in life.

Look to film directors for affirmation in doing this. If necessary, they’re prepared to work off the cuff, shooting non-linear scenes and forgoing a chronological framework, in favour of getting the best out of the cast and setting(s.) Sometimes the season is out of kilter with the plot; freak weather patterns can emerge. War can break out. A cast member might sicken. A piece of equipment may require updating. To avoid wasting time, other scenes will be filmed instead; the results edited together later.

Use this technique in your writing. Don’t feel bad for working outside a standard chronology of events. Life happens. If your mood fits one scene and not another, why waste it for the sake of keeping to narrative structure? You’ll find an enhanced sense of attachment to your characters; their actions/reactions can become symbolic of your own, and vice versa. A setting can seem your home-base, your emotional playground (or indeed, your personal hell.) The story will feel bound up in your own life-narrative. If it gets the work done – and as long as you take care to leave bread-crumb notes of what goes where – the audience isn’t going to know any better. They may be more likely to feel the story reverberate with what you were going through at the time, though only in emotional terms – the details remain your own.

Generally speaking, real life doesn’t allow for a sudden drop-of-the-hat reaction to a writing mood. I’m lucky enough to have few responsibilities or plays on my time outside of work, and can generally settle to a routine. This has its merits and drawbacks – it’s easy to get complacent. A writer would do well to push themselves out of their comfort zone, to test whether a character’s emotions and mindset are so easy to grasp when set against an entirely alien backdrop.

This is a useful technique when a story’s in pre-development. Take the early outline of a character – their name and whatever specifications are to hand – and write them into a scene of high emotional intensity. It can be outside of the story itself if you wish; I personally like setting characters in a war zone, or at the site of a volcanic eruption. It’s when we’re emotionally stripped raw, that true idiosyncrasies and flaws come to light.

Get to know your phone’s video/audio recording app. With the afore-mentioned dramatic scenes, I find recording vocal inflections and references to mannerisms (facial expressions, paralinguistic features like body language) priceless. Record whatever ad-libs come, symbolic references, interaction with other characters etc – these can all help to develop and strengthen a character’s voice, both in mannerisms and speech. Ideas are often triggered just by speaking in freeflow; the beauty of the app being, you can replay your thoughts at a later time.

A soundtrack crafted around a character’s personality can help enhance and inspire their thought patterns, actions and reactions. When listening to my iPod, a lyric may hangnail in my mind as something a character could relate to – either in general mindset, or at a particular point in their lives. This entry was an early compilation for my novel, End of the Line, when it was in its first draft. Songs attached themselves to characters and scenes along the way.

When creating your own soundtrack, make a point of heading tracklists with a characters’ name, adding notations as to which song is relevant to which scene. Then when it comes time to continue from where you’ve left off – particularly if real life has forced you to quit mid-scene – give that tracklist a listen, either before or during the writing process. It helps to define individual soundscapes for a narrative voice, for each chapter-scene.

This is equivalent to a film’s diegetic / non-diegetic sound; that is, what a character hears in their environment or prefers to listen to, as opposed to what sounds are outside the film-universe, laid over what is being filmed; outside the narrative construct and a character’s experience, but audible to the audience.

Put in a literary context, your Method soundtrack can be layered with the aesthetic and tone of a character – any song you feel fits their personality – as well as sounds mirroring unique reactions to a situation. Try subverting your own expectations of tone by shifting abruptly between a character or object’s signature “theme”, while writing a change in atmosphere and events. The resulting juxtaposition can really get under the skin, becoming symbolic:


(Hellraiser: Deader, Rick Bota)

You might even feel jangled enough to write this crossover into a scene, to evoke the same symbolic tension in your audience:

“What he heard was the clear, clarion call of a trumpet, its music cold as the air from the snow-covered mountains of his homeland. Pure and crisp, the trumpet call rose bravely above the darkness and death and despair, to pierce his heart.
Sturm answered the trumpet’s call with a glad battle cry…Again the trumpet sounded, and again Sturm answered, but this time his voice faltered, for the trumpet call he heard had changed tone. No longer sweet and pure, it was braying and harsh and shrill.
No! thought Sturm in horror as he neared the dragon. Those were the horns of the enemy! He had been lured into a trap! Around him now he could see draconian soldiers, creeping from behind the dragon, laughing cruelly at his gullibility… Fear knotted Sturm’s stomach; his skin grew cold and clammy. The horn call sounded a third time, terrible and evil. It was all over. It had all been for nothing. Death, ignominious defeat awaited him.” – pgs 121/122, “Dragons of Winter Night,” Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman.

Sometimes, circumstances can’t be passed over for writing. It becomes essential to jot down whatever notes you can, to later reactivate whatever you were feeling at the time an idea hit, or an inspirational scene was witnessed. This is memory-sense recall. The idea of key words was, for me, inspired by Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters. In the narrative, a girl writes the word “orange” on a scrap of paper, to carry as a constant reminder of one blissful afternoon spent with her family:

“Meg and Claire looked at each other. They could hear the clock over the stove, ticking. They could hear doves in the courtyard. They wanted this moment to last forever. The sunlight was orange. They had to remember that. Meg would make certain they did. She fetched a piece of paper and wrote down the word orange, then folded the paper in half. They could cut up pears and write down all of the colours of the light and listen to people laugh and smell the blooms on the chestnut tree and forget about the rest of the world… they would have this memory of sitting in the kitchen, being happy.” – pg 133, The Story Sisters

You’re looking to evoke the same emotional response you felt, by reading the sensory words and remembering exactly how the light was, what smells were in the air, how the air moved about you. This is Realism – walking back through time, recreating scenes from your life to bring scenes to the page. Reread old blog entries and that of friends, to engage once again with how you once felt in a situation similar to what a character might be going through.

Keeping a diary or journal framed in a character’s voice is a priceless component of Method writing. I regularly dip into the thoughts of protagonists by jotting down notes from their lives – mundane events, love interests, secret fears etc. I often write short poems through a character’s perspective, if they’re so inclined to do so. These may or may not enter the narrative proper; but they’re handy to have on the side, as a means of slipping in and out of character. Connections sometimes leap out of nowhere – things that were not apparent to me at the time of serious writing, but which become strikingly relevant when framed in a looser context.

Free-fall writing is equivalent to dropping stones down a well, listening for the splash. These are stream-of-consciousness sessions, which may or may not have an immediate bearing on an ongoing project, but are written in the style and tone of a piece I’ll be currently working on. These short blog entries are often framed in a character’s voice, or run parallel to its tone, and will sit adjacent to the actual story like a slip-road to a motorway. They are exercises in writing to music, spurts of creative output, for the sheer joy of imagery and often frantic emotional output. Words wind about and through the music, snagging lyrics and tugging them along for the ride, taking leaps between my own thoughts and that of a character. These entries are examples of the freeform style.

The end result often resembles a wordy Pollock painting, but they’re my most honest work next to life-blog entries. All formality, all boring thoughts of perspective and chronology, go out the window. Sessions like this are good for loosening the writing limbs before opening an actual project, or just to shake up the imagination – and they’re great for getting into character / setting tone.

This is Method writing to me. Preparation for what lies ahead; getting comfortable in a character’s perspective, picking up the narrative reins; grasping the sense of what an imaginary world is like, drawing on relevant personal experiences to colour up and enhance a mood and/or theme. Flipping the timer to let inspiration run between reality and fantasy.

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I want Fantasy

25/09/2013 at 21:41 (Method Writing, Personal, Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I’m in a black-purple mood tonight. My head is a beetle’s back, a monochrome night. Bonelight, moonlight. You can try and follow, but the cats have business of their own, and I follow around corners.

My shadow creep-claws the way.

My eyes are restless as my feet, it’s not something I wonder at too much. Intro to outro, extro to invert and back again. Keep the streets for me.

I was an introvert raised by extroverts. An endless parade of parties and sorority-like gags, dinners and hiding behind floor-length curtains with my nose in a book. Hiding with the cats, down by the mud-gullies and creeks, wading and climbing trees, while they sipped tea and talked Nothing.

Lonely child, now come with me
Into the wood, the dark to find
The light shall fail within your eyes;
The sweep of love is only lies.

I did not fall, nor did I stare
But found the path that we all know
Now tremble, Time, for all is fair
In love and lust, and bonelight glow.

…My darling, the story has yet begun to take hold.
Abide with me, in
Peace (something like it)
Through the mirror, the cracks
Of time, the broken watch
The sentry fallen asleep
His round not yet done, but Time
Is an angular thief
And we are but stickmen in his gaze

A puppet, a clown, a fool
A black rose, blue
A thought, turned to you
A mental shroud, an illness tau(gh)t
With what must be, with all, without.

Come. Walk. With. Me.

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