Writing Reality: Synaesthetic Scenes

02/06/2014 at 06:00 (Method Writing, Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I wholly admit to being a concept reader and writer. Rather than framing my work in concrete terms, pinned to actual events and circumstances, I work best with abstract ideas. Maybe this is due to inhibitions about the quality of my work; certainly, much of my life has been governed by vagueness, with facts and figures substituted for smoke and mirrors, symbolism.

While ill with anorexia nervosa, struggling to recover, I would ask for permission to eat and to rest, and fought bitterly with my therapist when she suggested that I begin to serve myself food, and take steps towards reducing my exercise. As she put it, “No one can monitor you forever. The details are yours.”

The thought of feeling well again, of having energy, was the image I worked towards; but whenever it came to the crunch (as it were), I would buckle under the pressure of taking responsibility for my own actions. My opinions didn’t matter, much less my emotions, because I couldn’t trust them. They had landed me in hot water before, after all.

The same self-doubt appears to have filtered across my life, like ink spilled over a map. It is something I push against every day, when writing, when socializing on / offline. As much as I would like to talk about our contemporary world, and certain economical / political aspects of it, I don’t feel I could do them justice. Not yet, at least – lack of experience, and self-esteem, cause me to stumble on words that should come easily, and I throw away as many blog entries as I begin.
Maybe one day, I will find a way to meld my concerns, and this flowery prose.

*

If there’s one thing I hate when writing in free-fall, it is hitting that dead-wall of thoughts – particularly when it comes to description, for it’s here that I’m in my element. With no ready connotations or sensory imagery to hand, the words seem as stick-lines only. While there is a need for a more direct style in certain types of prose, it is not something I can easily maintain. Trying to cut out imagery would feel like cutting off a limb, and I’ve given up trying to walk in the shoes of any author I happen to admire, but could never replicate.
A voice is a voice; mine happens to channel synaesthesia, and it’s to this kind of imagery that I turn when I want to bring a character, a setting or a scene alive.

As someone with Chromesthesia, I perceive colours and shapes/patterns (the concurrent) in relation to sounds and spoken words (the inducer.) Music is a major trigger. A whole song or a single note, the words of a vocalist or the scales played on an instrument – all can spark a response in my mind that is equivalent to seeing the keys of a piano lit up in a rainbow under my fingers, the flick of a whip made of shining copper strands, or a cloud of paint sluicing across the floor.

Vision
Vision by Carol Steen; Oil on Paper

I don’t so much “see” these additional perceptions, in conjunction with sound, as acknowledge the presence of them in shapes and colours behind my eyes.

When a new voice is introduced, the sound of a song can lose its original-composition colour. For example, when listening to the lyrics of Nick Drake’s Riverman, the predominant shades are pine green and bark brown; these are the colours of an oboe, which is also the “texture” of his voice, rounded and smooth, lilting.
But channelled through the voice of a cover singer, the words may become copper, or dusky blue, particularly if the instrumentation used is also different.

An artist can have an inherent “colour” of their own, regardless of what they are singing or playing about. In this, semantics have little impact, for it is the sound of the voice / the instruments which creates the synaesthetic impression, with variations of shade depending on pitch and tone; Cat Power is smoky purple in her alto lines, but on the soprano notes of “Colours and the Kids,” her voice comes closer to lilac.

I’m as yet unsure whether these synaesthetic experiences (the concurrent)are due to the emotional reactions evoked by reading a text or listening to a sound, or if is the actual construct of the inducer which is the trigger (the individual graph/phonemes.) One theory points toward crossed-wires activity in the cerebral cortex, which is divided into lobes that govern our thought patterns/processes, and sensory reactions. This would go some way towards explaining how a mood can have a colour – which is my strongest perception of synaesthesia, leading me to wonder whether it is these causing the colour effect, and not the stimuli. But why then should I have an emotional reaction towards the number 3? It is my favourite, and also happens to “appear” to me in my favourite colour, turquoise. Again, this is not something “seen” so much as perceived. The two are intrinsically linked. Likewise, I will avoid the number 5, because it is yellow – a colour I’m not all that fond of.

When it comes to writing, there’s no greater pleasure to be had than painting with words. I mean this in the way that Nabokov saw the Russian word, “Tosca”:

Toska – noun /ˈtō-skə/ – Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness.
No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
― Vladimir Nabokov

Such a palette of connotative imagery, attached to one small set of graphemes. I personally “see” the colours deep purple and red, as of an autumn leaf on a bonfire. There is a strong tang of bittersweet regret, like iron rust, in speaking the word aloud.

Ashridge in Autumn

Nabokov observed that synaesthetes tend not to share the same sensory perceptions, but instead have variations which are unique to them. This discovery was made through the observations of his wife and little boy, both synaesthetes themselves:

“My wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different.”

Still more fascinating is the apparent blending of grapheme-colours in the parental genes, to form a natural progression in the mind of the child – rather like mixing a set of oil paints:

“Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.”

Another author, Patricia Lynne Duffy, tells of a similar experience in her excellent book, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synaesthetes colour their World:

‘My father and I…were reminiscing about the time I was a little girl, learning to write the letters of the alphabet. We remembered that, under his guidance, I’d learned to write all of the letters very quickly except for the letter ‘R’.
“Until one day,” I said to my father, “I realized that to make an ‘R’ all I had to do was first write a ‘P’ and then draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.”
“Yellow letter? Orange Letter?” my father said. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know,” I said. “‘P’ is a yellow letter, but ‘R’ is an orange letter. You know – the colors of the letters.”
“The colors of the letters?” my father said.’

My own grapheme/phoneme combinations possess some spatial relativity to one another. 9, for example, is large and purple, quietly majestic with a faint sheen; 6 is little and silly, light green; 3 is turquoise, medium-sized and slender, with just the faintest sheen of silver. The name of my dear friend Nillu Steltzer, appears to me in white and red. My own name is blue and green, as most words/names with the close proximity of letter A and E, tend to be (interestingly, the co-editor of Synaesthesia Magazine, Carlotta, has a dark blue name; but her Twitter handle, @1chae, is canary-yellow and teal.)

These sensory crossovers have crept into our everyday lexicon. There is the “black funk”, the “itchy mood”, the “cold white light of the moon.” Using these concrete nouns to describe an emotional response to a situation, we can cross the borders into the abstract world, where a mood can have a colour or a texture; and back again, into a sensory-overlap, where a name we see becomes something we can taste, of it is described thus. The text gains what can *almost* be experienced as something tangible.
This is just one way of shaking up the descriptive writing process, giving an audience more variety.

A setting that resembles an empty room can be brought to life by the juxtaposition of what a character knows on a conscious-sensory level v.s. what they perceive on a subconscious-synaesthetic level. If the narrative perspective is channelled through one or more characters, whether in first person voice or over the shoulder, an author can choose to employ variations of sense-imagery based upon life experiences / circumstances. For example, a man who has been down on his luck may perceive the world in shades of rot, decay and rust; he may draw the audience’s attention to the rust on his car – its tangy smell, the rough texture to touch, the strange whorl-patterns to look at – in comparison to the sun sparkling on the polish of his neighbour’s vehicle.

Provided there is enough sensory stimulus and crossover, the relevant connotations and memory-triggers can evoke a “mood” in the audience, which is close to experiencing synaesthesia. In the same way, a film director will employ mise-en-scène – props, costumes, alterations in the colour / shade of lighting – and diegetic / non-diegetic sound, to influence the perceptions of mood from one scene to another.

synaesthesia therapy
Image courtesy of www.kingsroadrocks.com/

Time can be made apparent in terms of light and dark, with the sun shifting over the far wall in an office throughout a long shift, as well as the systematic ticking of a clock, the precision of numbers (senses Sight and Sound.) A shift in the air – the clatter of pigeons and the whirl of their feathers – can summarize a mood of fidgety discontent (senses Sound and Sight.)

Animal Genius: Pegions

A building may take on a mood, or experience an oscillation of these, depending on the perceptions of the workers within – or perhaps the mood may be unique to the structure itself, as of a sentient being. Your everyday environment can become a living organism, should you choose to open all your senses to it.

At work, I cross all floors of the building at some point during the day. The past 3.5 years have imprinted enough sensory triggers to make a library’s worth of stimuli, ready for recall if I need to describe a setting. The building has the creaking personality and elegance of an aged dancer; she is made up of frayed carpets, panes that crackle and flake plaster like skin, and windows that weep rain. Her coffee rings and energy drink towers, are testament to the state of the shifting moods of colleagues. Standing in an empty stairwell, I have only to listen to gauge the mood of a day (which may remain unchanged for a shift, or change sharply at the turn of events.) There are always little clues to look out for, and it is these shifts in atmosphere – from the normal to the charged, to the downright crucial, that you should make yourself aware of, in your own environments.

Dana Vachon’s “Mergers and Acquisitions” is essentially a book about investment banking; but it is the vibrant descriptions of the characters and settings, and the treacle-darkness of comedy and pathos, which drive the narrative. An average office space is framed thus:

“I settled into the eight-by-eight cubicle whose carpet had once been gray, but over the years had been Jackson Pollocked with tumbling chunks of sesame chicken and spilled splashes of Starbucks lattes.”

Vachon worked as an investment banker, and had apparently stored a vast sum of memories to use as stimuli for later recall, when writing of his experiences on Wall Street. The semi-autobiographical protagonist, Tommy, is not one for emoting with direct words; his narrative is rich with sensory perceptions, which do the job for him.

“She was lying on one of the old, overstuffed sofas, her hair wrapped up in a lumpy, unwashed bun. She wore the same red kimono that she had surprised me with weeks before, but it too seemed different, and as I looked closer I saw that among its bright silken peacocks and dragons were burns from fallen cigarettes and stains from splashed sips of wine….I looked at the frogs and noted that the air in the apartment was nursing-home stale and that the windows had all been closed.”

If your immediate environment is lacking the sparks necessary for a scene, take yourself to an unfamiliar setting. My personal jolt-from-comfort-zone is to wander through the noise and bustle of our local farmers’ market. It’s unnerving – there are a great many people around, with voices thrown like knives – but it’s a feast for the senses, with everything from basic reactions (touch = soft suede, sound = chattering coins, smell = fresh fruit), to more extensive imagery (plums that resemble bullets; a rainbow swathe of macs.)

Make a point of listening to what is expressed through surroundings as well as speech – those pigeons circling overhead, what has disturbed them? Is it relative to the time of day, or to a red kite angling nearby? Can this be used as an image of approaching danger? The slate-coloured nimbus that has gathered on the horizon of an otherwise blue-sky day: how might this shift in the weather be used to convey a change of mood of a scene, from peaceful and scenic to unpredictable and troublesome? Will the characters notice and draw attention to it themselves – as with first person POV – or will the audience be aware of the tonal shift before them, as a form of dramatic irony in third person POV?

In her novel, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman’s teen protagonists have a unique form of image-notation – by jotting down a single, significant word that is relative to a time and place, they are able to recall the sensory aspects of it, and the subsequent mood that was felt:

“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

Try this in your everyday experiences – particularly when time isn’t on your side – using a word/phrase/idiom to sum up the moment. I use “lamplight haven” and “orange-black” to help recall the sensory aspects of a night-walk; the stirring wind, leaves rattling along the pavement like fallen bones; steps taken a little more quickly than usual, and that odd halo of claws which tree branches make around a lamp. When writing such an experience into a scene, and stuck indoors on a blistering hot day, such sensory recall is priceless.

The trick is knowing when to jot something down on the spot, to record it before the moment is lost. This does involve a fair bit of diving into stairwells and ducking into alleyways. An audio recording / dictaphone app on your phone, is a good way of catching those emotional inflections which snagged you up – how it all made you feel at the time – to be channelled later when writing. Similarly, a photograph taken in-the-moment can help to trace back to the particular image of stillness in an afternoon, when the sky seemed made of lemon juice and fleece, the rain was silver, and the air was purple with the smell of buddleia.

Lewes

With regards to how light shifts across the walls of a room, perhaps mark its passage in terms of what a character pays attention to, in relation to emotions – do they notice the ruddy tinge of the sun while waiting for an agonizing shift to end? If they are waiting in expectation of a loved one’s arrival, is the light more notable than the creeping shadows; or if the visitor are late, do the corners of the room waver in uncertainty? Does the smell of wildflowers through the open window, unnerve them in the sense that the loved one may have chosen “freedom”, and changed their mind?

The progression of time can also be marked as a seasonal narrative – how does this affect your characters? Do they notice when the sun sets further along the western skyline, disappearing behind a different building each night? When the light shifts from spring’s green-gold haze, to the stark gold bars of summer, and thus into the pastels and burnt palette of autumn and the silver-black starkness of winter, does the continuum leave them melancholic, or edgy with the anticipation of change? In this way, the combination of sensory-stimuli and connotative imagery can evoke an emotional response in the audience. Their memories may be triggered; their thinking may turn to aspects of their own lives, emphasizing relativity, by a description framed in synaesthetic imagery, as with Baudelaire’s “Correspondences“:

“There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant.”

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Writing Reality: What’s in a name?

21/04/2014 at 06:00 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


As a writer, you have at some point probably spent an agonizing amount of time thumbing through every baby book and name-etymology website you could find, in search of that set of letters which would sum up the person you are creating – whether a child or an adult. The forename is our personal identity – if we choose to keep it – and the ways in which it can be used, added to, altered and spoken aloud, bring to light a lot of the subtle interactions which go on every day, as part of human life. It is our stamp of identity, distinguishable from the inherited family surname, and though it may be commonly used throughout particular cultures / age groups, it still has a unique relevancy to our personalities. It is, after all, one of the first identifiable set of phonemes we are likely to hear and respond to, when we are small. And unless circumstances dictate otherwise, such as a name-change by deed poll, your forename will be what is left of you after death, written in cards and letters, on gravestones, in the minds of others – along with all the relevant memories which are attached. It is these which make us human.

Connotation, Denotation

There is much to be said for the word “misnomer” in this context. Some people really do not “look like” their names. You have probably come across at least one person who didn’t seem to “fit” their name, whether through connotative imagery – the associations we make with words, through cultural / historical / social references – or through detonative meaning. My grandmother once told me of a friend called Grace, who was in the habit of breaking more china plates, and bones in her body than anybody else she knew.

This was, of course, not that poor woman’s fault. But it is interesting to note how a name can seem to influence our perspective – and expectations – of others, as well as ourselves. Living up to a surname or title is one thing, but to live up to a forename too? If it has been consciously passed on from one family member to another, or was given in honour of somebody admired, how might this affect our perception of the world, and ourselves?

This is worth paying attention to, when naming your characters and creating people. How might they choose to react to – or disregard – the associations which surround their fore/last names? What is expected of them by others, and how does this shape their relationships? Is there a running tradition of naming a child after a parent (father-son, mother-daughter etc), and if this is not observed, how might the narrative be suffused with conflict as a result? (I had a friend in school whose uncle took such offence at the boy’s father’s disinclination to observe family tradition, that he referred to my classmate only by his middle name – which happened to be his own, carried over by several generations.)

If you’re looking for balance between the projected image of a name, and the context/tone of your work, it might be best to avoid “loaded” names that carry heavy connotations – perhaps from a well-known fictional text (e.g. “Titania”/ “Romeo”, from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet”, respectively) or a period of history (“Hitler”, whether for a protagonist or an antagonist, is not advised.)

Then again, as a way of subtly influencing the audience’s perception of a character – or perhaps to give them a gentle nudge in the ribs – there is always the option of allusion. This is subjective to what the audience already knows, and how they might link this to your work (e.g. if you were writing a tragedy, the name Cassandra would be picked up on by those familiar with the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, of Greek mythology.) As ever, context is a key element.

Sound Effects

I am always a bit startled to hear my name in full, because it came to be associated with trouble, in childhood. My parents and teachers were in the habit of calling me “Rai” under normal circumstances, but at times of tension, the simple utterance of my full title would be reprimand enough to pull me up short, since it was used so rarely. Tone and volume of course played their part, but even now, I get an uneasy “uh oh” quirk of the mind to hear it; even when the cause is a simple call for attention in a more formal setting.

Be aware (and wary) when using alliteration in naming characters. On the one hand, this can create a useful mnemonic effect, especially when applied to a role that you want to make more identifiable from others (protagonist / antagonist) – but overuse of alliteration can dilute its effect, with names jumbling into one another if they have too-similar phonemes (e.g. protagonist called Katherine/Catherine, antagonist called Karrie/Carrie.)

Alliteration, and other sound-effects such as assonance and sibilance, can be used to emphasize the sound-symbolism of names. “Salazar Slytherin” will forever be a favourite of mine, with its sibilant hiss referencing the snake motif that is a recurrent theme of the Harry Potter series, which the founder of Slytherin house was associated with – as well as the spitfire language of snakes, Parseltongue. When combined with dialogue and/or narrative that “echoes” the sound-imagery of a name, the effect can be startling.

“‘It matters,’ said Hermione, speaking at last in a hushed voice, ‘because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. That’s why the symbol of Slytherin house is a serpent.'”

“‘They called Slytherin himself Serpent-tongue.'” – pgs 146-9, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling.

The names which J.K Rowling chose for her four school houses seem to fit quite neatly with the general characteristics ascribed to each, through the respective ideals of each founder, and the symbolism of sound (e.g. Hufflepuff = predominance of “soft-friendly” phonemes vs. Slytherin = sibilance, “shifting/sinister”, as of snake movement.)

Do vocalise your own choice of names before applying them to characters. Take into consideration how they sound in your mind, how they feel when spoken, how they look when written out. Do they appear wonderfully exotic, but cause an ache in the mouth just trying to pronounce them? How easily will the audience recall their sound-associations; how can this work in your favour, when trying to promote a certain “image” of a character (more / less appealing) and how might this correspond with their personality / agenda over the course of the narrative? Will reading/speaking aloud the name of one character, be a more enjoyable experience than another – how can this be manipulated for maximum engagement?

Honorific

As the word “honour” denotes, the use of an honorific is often a mark of respect. The Japanese suffixes -san -kun and -chan, for example, can instantly change the manner of expression between two people, and give an insight into their relationship: formal/informal, person/impersonal. Woe betide the employee who addresses his superior with -kun, which tends to be used between peers of an equal social standing.

In England, our most commonly recognized honorifics include Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr, etc; these can be used in salutations, and dropped thereafter if appropriate (such as when an equal footing is found in conversation between strangers.) Where the honorific is maintained, the mark of respect/authority is made clear – in the House of Commons, John Bercow will be referred to as “Mr Speaker.” In my workplace, the leader of each team is known as the “sergeant” – an honorific which, depending on the level of familiarity between staff, can often be contracted to “Sarge”, which can itself become a type of honorific-nickname.

Depending on your characters and their interactions with one another, consider the following:

* Who is dependant on who? Is an honorific used as part of a plot device and/or characterization, to emphasise the need of one character for the aid of another (sucking up, fawning for favour, flattery – bestowing an honorific which might not be factually applicable.)

* Conversely, is the relationship an antagonistic one, in which a character bestows an honorific to be insulting – either by exaggeration (“his Nibs / her Ladyship” for an overbearing and demanding person) or by diminishing their status in life (the Japanese suffix -chan, applied to a peer with whom one is not overly familiar, would be troublesome; applied to a figure of higher authority, it could spell disaster.)

* Who possesses the higher authority? Do they require an honorific, and if so, how does this bear upon the relationship with others of your cast; can it be dropped in favour of the first name (personal, a warmer approach) or is it required at all times, to instil a continuum of respect? (e.g. the Japanese sensei is often used in favour of a first name altogether, as students would refer to the highest authority figure in a school as “headmaster”.)

* How important are hierarchies in your plot; who adheres to what in the narrative? How sensitive are your characters to social mores, to class status, to the often-unvoiced but very much prevalent plays of power in the workplace? All of these can be conveyed to the audience through the simple act of bestowing an honorific to a certain character … and the choice of another character to ignore this rule (e.g. a student addressing a headmaster by his first name/surname, without due consideration for the latter’s higher authority – unless permission was first given to do so), may provide a nuanced insight to the relationships that form part of the plot.

Nicknames / terms of endearment

Opinions differ when it comes to the giving / receiving of nicknames, and terms of endearment. My aunt is forever reminding people that her youngest daughter was baptised “Jennifer”, thereby cancelling out all diminutive forms such as Jen/Jenny. I have no argument with that, since it is a lovely name. But nicknames and contracted forms of a forename, can serve their purpose in the right setting – such as a fast-moving game of football or basketball. I speak from the experience of having a team mate back in school, who insisted on being referred to only as “Sebastian”, and refused to acknowledge all variations. Words can tumble about when you’re trying to run and yell at the same time. We opted for hand signals in his direction, not all of them polite, depending on how he was playing.

Friends and family often use diminutive forms of a given name, to strengthen the bond between them (Jim = James, Gabby = Gabrielle.) This can vary between social circles – online, I’m more commonly known by my Twitter handle, Raishimi; this wouldn’t be applicable offline, at the Nick for example, where I’m known as Rach. But to family, who have of course known me the longest, I will always be Rai (pronounced Ray), which was apparently how I referred to myself as a baby.

Keep in mind how a name can be used as the smallest citation of an emotion – the equivalent of a hand’s compression on the shoulder, or a long look. The less people there are who hold the meaning behind a nickname, the longer its secret emotional attachment may be preserved.

Shared life experiences and circumstances can form an attachment that is best summed up by the link of a nickname. A gang member may refer to his/her companions only by their street names when in that setting, to preserve the mentality – should they wish to avoid drawing attention to activities, they may automatically slip back into the names which their families are familiar with, when at home. This forms a contract of code, with the names becoming symbolic of another lifestyle.

Having grown up in an environment where it was quite common to be known as anything from “sweetpea” to “darling” – that’s before we get onto the nicknames, which we won’t – this now translates over into how I interpret / convey levels of familiarity in social interactions.

“Liebling” (German, “darling”) is one frequently used when talking with friends on Twitter – though it is generally reserved for those who understand what it means, in terms of language-translation and the symbolism behind it. German tends to sneak into my speech when the setting is casual (on Twitter, or when speaking with family), but in a professional capacity or when speaking with those of higher authority, it makes less of an appearance. For me, the second language – in particular, the use of its endearments – has become symbolic of familiarity and affection. I still refer to my ex as “Liebs” – a contraction of “Liebling” – which became something of a nickname while we were together, and has now stuck. It is equivalent to calling someone “hon/hun”, a contraction of “honey.”

“Liebe” – Love – is the strongest sign of affection I can give, and is used rarely. It holds the same symbolic power as the use of a first name, which generally happens when I wish to make a point, either in written text or in dialogue. This can be a useful angle when there is the presence of subtext, either in an implied emotion or message.
Repetition of a name can enforce the presence of personality; it can ascribe all the nuances of life to something that might otherwise be viewed as an inanimate object / subhuman being:

“Catherine is my daughter’s name. Please, show us your strength,” Senator Martin said in closing, “release Catherine
unharmed.”
“Boy, is that smart,” Starling said. She was trembling like a terrier. “Jesus, that’s smart.” …
“Why did she keep saying ‘Catherine,’ why the name all the time?”
“She’s trying to make Buffalo Bill see Catherine as a person. They’re thinking he’ll have to depersonalize her, he’ll have to see her as an object before he can tear her up. Serial murderers talk about that in prison interviews, some of them. They say it’s like working on a doll.”
– Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

With regards to how your characters address one another, keep the following in mind:

* Levels of authority, hierarchies of power – when is it permissible to relax these boundaries, to allow for such terms of endearment in social / personal / professional interactions?

* How might contracted versions of an endearment / honorific become nicknames (e.g. a uniformed sergeant being referred to as “Sarge”, or sometimes “Skipper/Skip” (as in the nautical “captain.”)

* How can the use of endearments/nicknames convey intimacy in a relationship – or conversely, how might their omission display an emotional reserve, as with professional/impersonal boundaries? If two characters who were once friends then fall out, how might this be reflected in their manner of addressing one another? (honorific-surname brought back to replace a term of endearment / first name / nickname = cold civility. “Mr — was just leaving”, in lieu of former warmth found in the use of a forename.)

* When does it become permissible, in the development of your narrative/plot, for the use of first names in social interactions between characters, if such an observance of etiquette must be made?

Acknowledgement, Possession

A name can be altered with personal choice, by deed poll; it can be adapted to suit the mutual agreement of intimacy between friends and lovers. But the act of taking away a name – of denying its use to the original bearer – can create a striking message of possession and adversity.

In the Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away“, the heroine Chihiro Ogino comes up against the witch Yubaba, who controls a bathhouse for the spirit world, in which the latter may come to refresh themselves. When Chihiro approaches Yubaba to ask for a job – as part of the rescue mission of her parents, who have eaten food meant for the spirits and have subsequently been turned into pigs – the latter agrees, with a highly symbolic condition: she claims for her own, with magic, some of the characters (kanji) which make up Chihiro’s name.

Sen

Thus does Chihiro become Sen; her true identity belongs to Yubaba, for as long as the witch holds onto what makes up her name. The kanji becomes a written representation of the girl’s identity, which in turn is bound up in the existence of her name – both of which she must strive to remember, if she is to escape and succeed in rescuing her parents.

The simple act of acknowledging a name in conversation can be a gift of subtle intimacy – particularly with its repetition – or it may serve as a marked point of reference when drawing someone’s attention to a thought / idea. In creating characters, you leave their thoughts, memories and ideals behind the identifying stamp of a name, for the audience to find and latch onto. You are taking someone who was a work of fiction, and turning them into a reality.

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Mental Health: A reality check

03/02/2014 at 05:50 (Personal, Reviews, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , )


We all have our own idiosyncrasies. As a child, I’d arrange toys in a system only I could navigate (so my bedroom resembled a bombsite), setting out scenes and narrating the stories of each “character”, while becoming quite agitated if anyone dared disrupt whatever master plan I had in mind.

On the flipside, it was incredibly difficult to concentrate at school. My grades suffered at the hands of a creative streak that made daydreaming a far more pleasant experience than learning times tables – as I’m sure many of you can empathize with. But it even spread to my favourite subject, English, with a lesson soon abandoned in favour of scribbled little half-stories that went nowhere, poems in paperback binders. Tippex’d quotes on tables. Consistency, adherence to anything, wasn’t a strong point.

Anorexia Nervosa changed this. Aged sixteen, I was fed up with the onslaught of change that had made up my teen years thus far, and was determined to take back control. This is a keyword. Everything was falling away – childhood (with puberty), family ties (my parents were going through an acrimonious divorce), the supportive structure of compulsory education – a huge factor in my life from age five, as I had travelled a good deal beforehand and was something of a late starter, particularly where reading was concerned. Coming back to the UK, settling into the routine of lessons and friendships, had provided a quieting influence.

Where the abuse was concerned, there was a different perpetrator for each incident. It got so that I began to believe I had the word VICTIM stamped on my forehead; that I was somehow sending out the wrong signals, whether by my gender, appearance or behaviour. I went to great lengths to make myself as unattractive as possible, while in a strange double-mindset, wishing to be attractive to the boys I liked with all the fervour of teen hormones. It was a razor-edge time.

Weight loss soon impaired my thought processes, and the little “tendencies” I’d always had, grew into frightening routines which – looking back now – I am stunned to consider were part of my daily existence. I could not go an hour, a minute without engaging in some “behaviour” or another – mostly exercise-related, for this was my “healthy” choice of weight loss. I figured it wouldn’t rot my teeth as with vomiting, or impair my gastric system as with laxative abuse. Coinciding with a decrease of all the “bad” foods in my life, what could possibly go wrong? I didn’t see the latter as starvation, and it certainly didn’t start out that way. It rarely does. It’s a gradual tipping point of Can’t Have This today, so Can’t Have It tomorrow, either. And so forth. All those little bits that get chipped off, soon add up.

Compliments from classmates and my family (not to mention the increased attention from boys in my year, a first) were all related to my weight loss, and seemed an affirmation that what I was doing was right. No matter that it secretly involved some truly odd behaviour, which I won’t list here, as I am ever-wary of triggering or influencing someone who is vulnerable. By losing weight, toning up with increased exercise and enhancing my new “feminine” image, I appeared to be making myself stronger, more in control.

The truth was the exact opposite. I had never felt more alone, and unlike myself. Rather than spending hours reading, I was straightening my long blonde hair to within an inch of its life. Where I used to be down the woods, climbing an oak to reach its zenith for a spectacular sunset view, I was out in the lamplight haven with several peers who I no longer have any contact with – we were joined by a single mindset of alcohol and smoking, escapism in sex and whatever soft drugs were going around. I barely recognised myself. But it seemed the “right” thing to do, as did the secret eating / exercise habits I kept up around all of this.

Anorexia will isolate its victim, locking them in ice and paring off that which is “superfluous” to its needs, and likely to get in the way of control. Emotions are kicked out, in favour of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) routines, controlled eating / starvation habits, purging. I didn’t want the lives of others holding me back from the ultimate goal of losing weight, of becoming “pure” again, after all that had happened. This kind of selfishness is inherent of the illness.

When the world became too exhausting, I shut myself away in my mothers’ house, to play out the exhausting ream of routines. Exercise was consistent but unstructured; I didn’t get a gym pass until after hospital, and only then by my doctor’s notice. So it was an exercise free-for-all, of taking great pains (literally) to go the furthest distance wherever possible. No cutting corners, no sitting down, no taking the lift. If it could be walked, I’d walk it. No circumstance was too difficult, no weather too awful to go out in. If it meant more calories burnt, then more control could be taken back.

One very prevalent habit was the cleaning. I know many OCD sufferers will relate to this, with or without anorexia. I could not leave the house until it had been turned upside down and back again. Having military parents might have had something to do with this, too. Whenever someone dropped something – my brother, bless him, can’t eat without leaving a trail of bread crumbs any witch would be proud of – I would be on it before he’d had time to move away, sweeping up around his feet. My brother felt as though he was in the way, that simply being around was causing me stress. Though only 9 years old, he was (and is) a sensitive little soul, enough so that he went to great lengths to keep me “safe” as possible.

There are certain scenes I would erase from the back of his eyelids forever, if I could. Things that I myself can’t remember, having either burnt them from memory or from being too ill to form them as memories in the first place. Only my mothers’ input and my brother’s recollections have made me aware of their occurrence; such as the afternoon when the former came into our kitchen and found me standing with a meat knife in my hand, staring at the wall. They had been eating a Chinese takeaway dinner in the next room, and the smell was apparently of such torment to my aching senses that I simply stopped still, like a wound-down toy – but not before somehow getting hold of that knife, resting it in my palm, blade pointing to the carpet.

She took it from me, asked what I was doing, with that bewildered / angry despair that was her customary state in those darkest days.
I shrugged. Didn’t say a word, for how could I tell her that my feet hurt so much from pacing? She would only make me sit down, and that was a worse terror – to rest, to “gain weight.” So I stood still, counting heartbeats and blanking out the delicious smells from the lounge, the sound of my brother’s precious laughter.

I still thank Whoever that he didn’t see me like that, at least. But my mother did, and threw me a disgusted look.
“If you’re going to kill yourself, just get it over with,” she snapped, before stalking back into the lounge and closing the door.
Truly, there is no way to describe how I felt from hearing those words, and having the knowledge that I had caused her to
say them. I hurt her so badly, and this is something I will never forgive myself for, no matter how much else I have reconciled as part of the recovery process. I might as well have stabbed myself in the chest, for the pain that nested there. As it did some years later, when my brother – then fifteen – was listening to Eva Cassidy’s Fields of Gold with me. I was (cautiously) en route to becoming well by then. He put his head on one side, looking thoughtful.

“I remember you sitting in the dark listening to this,” he said matter-of-factly. “You said it was the song you wanted to have played at your funeral.”

My mind went pale.
What kind of older sister tells her little brother this? The very fact I have no recollection of it happening, of the words that would stay with him forever, is testament to how ill I had been at that point. Anorexia had done its work.

On the 20th of January this year, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke at a conference in London, which brought together experts in mental health, associative charities and users of mental health services, to talk about how treatment can be improved across the country. He made it clear that public attitudes and social opinions must change.

“Today we’re calling for action – across the NHS, the mental health sector and wider society – to champion change, to transform outdated attitudes and practices and to improve the lives of people with mental health problems.”

Outdated attitudes such as England cricketer Jonathan Trott being told to “pull himself together”, perhaps – that “winners don’t quit.” Or indeed, telling someone who has Binge Eating Disorder that you “know a diet that is really effective; I have the book if you want it.”

Society tends to base its assumptions on what is tangible. A broken arm is cooed over, the cast is signed, time off work is granted if necessary or lighter duties permitted. Condolences are doled out because we can understand physical injuries / impairment based upon what we have experienced ourselves. Everything has a relative link to something else; though I haven’t broken a bone in my body (as yet) I know all too well the pain of a puffed-up sprained ankle, and the boring slog of keeping it still so that recovery can take place.

Physical pain is easier to identify with, I believe, because even an old injury can have painkillers thrown at it, a supportive bandage put on, perhaps some deep-heat lotion applied to take the ache away. Time-consuming perhaps, but not nearly as much as sitting down with that pain, talking to it and teasing out its problems; using the Hot Cross Bun model of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to cut through the emotional cause = reaction cycle.

Following inpatient treatment, I was discharged back into the world, to make of it what I could with all that I had learned. Funding for the halfway-house where I was supposed to continue treatment – as a means of reintroducing me to the world and independence – had fallen through. I remember hearing similar cases of this while on the ward, and being alarmed at the regularity of its occurrence. Deemed a healthy weight for my height and age, I had been out of “normal life” for seven and a half months; though if you want to look at it on a broader spectrum of experience, I had been “out of it” for years. So to still be lumbered with the thoughts and emotions I had been admitted with, seemed a harsh laugh in the face of all the time spent inside. It didn’t take long for me to relapse.

I was nineteen years old, and felt utterly worthless. I had no job, and only marginal experience of full-time employment before inpatient admittance. Due to leaving sixth form early, I had no further qualifications than GCSE level, while many of my peers were by that point already at University. I survived on Disability Living Allowance – the lower bracket, since I was means-tested and found to be mobile enough that I did not require a higher level of benefits. In some ways, this was true, though my bones were fragile and my skeletal muscles were pretty much non-existent. Blood tests every fortnight showed that inherent low glycogen levels (hypoglycemia) would be an enduring problem, particularly if exacerbated by poor nutrition and liver breakdown when very underweight.

My mother could only earn so much to sustain us both – especially as I was already back on a build-up plan. Naturally, I wanted to live off low-calorie “health” foods, and walk/run all over the place. Old habits soon crept in, without the support of the dear friends I’d made on the ward, or the firm eyes of the staff. The arguments with my mother were formed of a tired desperation at having to rehash old subjects again and again (a carer of someone with an eating disorder may know what I mean), and a very real fear that I’d go into a coma. Christmas Eve, my GP rang to tell me that, after checking my last batch of bloods, I wasn’t to move an inch over the holidays.
I laughed down the phone at him.

Looking back, I shudder at my own naivety and subjection to anorexia’s iron grip. I simply couldn’t comprehend how much danger I was in. By that point, I was almost back to the weight I had been pre-hospital – a madness of thoughts, like crows circling in the lowlight:

Have I eaten too much? when can I eat next? how can I take the hunger away? when can I exercise next? have I burnt enough calories off? did I do this right? is anyone watching?
*God I feel like such an idiot. People are watching. They think I’m weird. I never fit in anywhere. Fuck it, might as well continue*

There are always snippets of the Self, shoved up against the side of the brain; the little whimpering voice that pleads to basic principles and beliefs, such as Love and Awareness and Giving a Shit about other’s Feelings. Never quite loud enough to overcome the white noise, which only gets more distorted and violent in pitch the further down you go. It really is like someone adjusting an aerial or dialling the frequency on a radio, losing the presenter’s voice among the fuzz.

Since I couldn’t yet face full-time employment but was determined to stay out of hospital, I went in the opposite direction and enrolled back in college. Having left sixth form early, to be cared for by my Nanna before entering inpatient treatment, I was three years behind my peers in terms of what the majority of them saw as a natural progression – further education, university, maybe a gap year between. I found myself a late starter in October 2004, back in my old college and in the sixth form block, where I’d seen the tall lanky teens come and go in their Levellers t-shirts, skanky jeans and Avril Lavigne makeup. And that was just the ones I paid attention to, the “alternative” crowd.

Incidentally, I can’t stand stereotypes, and will bristle whenever someone slaps this label on me. Alternative to what? Life?

Now I was to take their place, but felt incredibly small and insignificant by comparison. The block wasn’t the shining shrine we’d always imagined it to be, full of gleaming vending machines that we uniformed kids were banned access to, and comfortable with stuffed couches in the lounge. It was small, and stank of BO and someone’s dad’s aftershave; the vending machines needed a kick just to get them to light up, and the couches haemorrhaged their stuffing with every tatty-jeaned backside that flopped into them. Mind you, the wrestling matches didn’t help either.

It was loud and bristling with hormones; bright with Punky Fish a-line hoodies, beanies and those bloody awful punk-ballerina skirts that were the rage at the time (Avril, you have a lot to answer for.)

Sixth form seemed at first worlds away from the inpatient ward – raucous and fervent with the fast-approaching future, an extension of the playground rituals and classroom laws of childhood. But after a month or so of watching my younger classmates, I realized how uncannily alike we were, despite their optimism and the age gap. Here too were the crossed-wires of hormones, the mood swings, the searching for identity, which can beset a recovering anorexic and leave them so utterly confused as to where they stand, how far away death might be in relation to life. Listening to their talk, absorbing it all, I didn’t feel quite so alone. Though it took a good few weeks before I’d dare to open and talk to any of them.

Despite maintaining a low body weight, I still felt emotions (much to my annoyance), and desperately tried to cancel these out by visiting the gym next door as often as possible. All this did was tire me out so that my grades began to suffer – and what a novel concept it was, to realize that something other than weight loss actually mattered. I wanted to do well, to overcome the memory of the balls-up that was my GCSE’s. So, with the patient help of my teachers and Form tutor (all of whom were aware of my condition, and went to great lengths to make sure I had avenues of help in the school nurse, or just a listening ear) I flung myself into studying. Nothing is ever worth doing by halves.

Anorexia was by this point sitting back on its sharp haunches and looking around in confusion:
What? She doesn’t want me around anymore? What’s going on? We’re still terrified, here.
As it tightened the noose, trying to claw back, I became silently abhorrent in behaviour – perhaps more so than before hospital, for now I had the driving force of exams up ahead. Racing towards the finishing line, though in all honesty, I had no thought for what lay beyond. University still seemed a distant dream. I just had to get through A Levels, first.

In appearance, I was all right-angles and hunted eyes. Incredibly defensive, walking with a strut that belied the cower beneath, with cropped, multicoloured hair that made up yet more jagged lines. I didn’t see this for myself, except in photos. These acted as a conduit between what anorexia showed me in the mirror, and what others perceived. This still holds true today.

It didn’t take long for me to gain the reputation of a loner. I was mingling with the younger brothers and sisters of my old classmates – a weird enough situation, without the fact I still had to carry food-packs around with me all over the place, just to stay upright. We were allowed to eat in class, within reason, but public eating will always be a wary subject for me. Still, I had to maintain my weight, and to do so meant eating very regularly. I was allowed to sit at the back of every class, so as not to draw attention to myself. I could leave whenever I wished, and would often do so before the bell rang, just to make sure I could gain access to a certain treadmill in the gym. OCD dictated that I had to use this particular machine, and I’d be fiercely agitated if it wasn’t available.

The strong support system allowed me to progress, both in health and education. At any one time, I could speak to a counsellor or teacher, and have them liaise with my local NHS care team. This is essential for stabilizing a child / adolescent’s sense of security – they must feel as though they are being heard, that their health issues are not being ignored, while maintaining the delicate balance with continued education. While an inpatient at Bethlem Hospital, I observed several younger patients attending the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School, which provides education for child / adolescent inpatients. This prevents students from falling behind, while keeping in touch with the outside world – an essential feature of regaining physical and mental health, without becoming institutionalized.

For all the support and sympathy of the adults, there were several kids in my college who would have benefited from increased awareness of mental health issues, and subsequent care. About four months into my first year, a small group of lads – all still in uniform – took to following me around the campus and sometimes through town too, calling out “Annie Anorexic” while giggling into their hands. The humiliation of this was, I can assure you, quite exquisite. I was already exhausted from juggling anorexia, OCD, education and part-time work. Retreating into myself, I ignored them and beat out frustration in the gym.

When this no longer sufficed, and I was found sobbing in the girls’ toilets one afternoon, it was reported to the head of sixth form. A man of the old-school style, he scared the Hell out of me (and most of my peers, plus several younger teachers) when I was in uniform. By that point though, he had become a good friend. I will never forget that afternoon when he put aside his entire hectic schedule, to sit and talk me through all that had happened – not just the teasing, but everything, dating right back to when I had been his student in compulsory education.

I wasn’t present to see the dressing-down each of the boys got, nor did I wish to receive a personal apology from any of them. What I was gratified to note were the measures immediately put into place to prevent the bullying from spreading further. Turns out I wasn’t the only one being wound up. An assembly was called for the benefit of the school, with information made available about mental health awareness, and relative care / support systems. I’d like to think that it caused several others to come forward, who might have been hiding in silence.

When summer 2006 rolled around, I was still stuck in a mental rut where health was concerned, but had somehow managed to soak up an education. My weight had remained static for two years – a real achievement. The routines that seem so dull to me now, agonizing in their meticulousness, had kept me in a safe status quo that allowed me to dial down my thoughts for studying. It’s the equivalent of turning your phone off or putting it on silent before a meeting or writing session. But while anorexia wouldn’t allow my emotions or those of others to filter back in, with education, I could at least put the book down and walk outside again. It became easier to do so. I had reasons to leave the house.

I owe all of my teachers a great deal, for allowing me silence when I couldn’t find a word to say, and listening when I chose to speak up. It was as though college had become an extension of hospital; a place where I could find courage enough to regain trust in my opinions and beliefs, and the voice to express them. For years, I would laugh at people who applauded my efforts – this now seems an ugly, ungrateful thing to do. I will try to be gracious wherever possible.

I must admit, I did cry a bit while accepting a hug from each of my teachers, when the exam results came through. I’d not only made it into the top set with all three subjects – English Literature, Language and Film Studies – but top of the regional sixth form tables. It made the local paper …which I didn’t keep a copy of, because I didn’t think anyone would really care, or that it was worth keeping around.

Some old habits die hard.

Clegg has made his stance on mental health awareness / treatment known, while Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband is backing the YoungMinds Vs campaign, stating that their “survey exposes some of the pressures children are under in Britain today, from bullying and sexualisation to worries about job prospects. And when they feel depressed, too many young people are afraid to speak out or find a lack of support when they do… Mental health is the biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age, and young people’s mental health must be a top priority for Britain.”

Personally, I could care less which party oversees an improvement to the overstretched mental health services across the country, so long as it is sustainable and not a flash-in-the-pan. Mental health awareness is here to stay. Actions over words, as ever.

Where my own mental health is concerned, it is still one day at a time. I can laugh at things that would once have set me back; but this is through my own progression, over a matter of years. Others, I know, have not been so fortunate.
I keep them in mind, even while walking forward.

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Whither do I wander

26/10/2013 at 14:22 (Anorexia, Personal, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I wasn’t going to post an entry this weekend, nor yet write for Monday Blogs. All the fierce colour has gone out of my mind recently, a prelude to something worse I fear. I wish it were only ‘flu, but it’s more likely a case of the Blues.

Emily Haines knows what I’m talking about.

“Doctor Blind, just prescribe the blue ones / If the dizzying highs don’t subside overnight / Doctor Blind, just prescribe the red ones.” The life and half-life of an addict – lights going out, one by one. Friends and family, falling away.

That has been my time. A rip-curl ride of reds – stark love, stick-tears and falling in a heap at the feet of those who had no need of me, but I gave too many ideals to bother looking for what they meant. Oh, I’m an eventuality, a cause without a rebel; ever a slave to my own passions. I believe too much in one thing, not enough in the other – truth and love so rarely go hand in hand. That summer of long heat and gold shadows and finding my feet walking unknown paths, is almost done. No, it is done; the baleful eye of the sun winks brass light at me these days, while leaves the exact same shade as the polished beech carvings on a market stall, go skirling along the pavement like ashes. The wind is not yet raw. I anticipate a bad fall. Depending on what side of the pond you sit right now, you can take that as many ways as you like.

The way I see now, is a darkening tunnel of light. I pull away from those who would care; run after those that don’t. So it’s always been – an addictive personality, forever craving what I can’t have. Blue pill, red pill, sometimes I’m skyhigh on both while burrowing down in a screaming soul’s night. I woke on Friday morning at dead on 4.15 with tears pouring down my face, mouth open on that silent cry; a wicked memory, a nightmare perhaps, though both are footloose in my mind. I can’t recall what sparked it off, what spared me the end result. So it usually is with those falling dreams; you wake, before whamming into the pavement. The city lights and skyscrapers and blue-black night fly past, your hair and fingers sing through the wind, and you watch the ground come up to swallow you whole –

Shutter out.
Let the Doctor soothe your brain, dear.

I live on snatched time and aching limbs, rum and a cheap equivalent of Red Bull. So much caffeine, so many lip-salve kisses on a glass. I raise one to the world each night, then another, with the hopes of sleeping far more than I should. Reality and fantasy, I want them both, and too often they evade me with the same chevron smiles of the geese, long gone now over the autumn sky. God, I miss their passing. The lake is a little more bare, a little more cold, each time I walk through the park. Some remain, to be fed by the mirroring gaggle of humans, with their bags full of bread and sticky rubbish. The upshot being that the poor overweight bastards (the feathered ones) can’t fly away with their healthier, wiser fellows – their wings are shot, all broken off due to disease inflicted by scooping up great mounds of their own shit with the food thrown out to them in the same patches around the water’s edge. Overcrowding, overfeeding; malnutrition and crossing of wires, as they’re stoked on the same sugar high-crashes we seem to run the gauntlet of every day, out of office and gym and carpark and pub.

Who says we’re not intrinsically linked? I beg to differ. I’d like to do more, but there’s the point of my mouth being sewn shut lately, out of weariness and a slight aversion to Self. Yes, we’re in that thin-ice spot again, where I find ribs as old friends; am frightened by my reflection and embittered by my voice. It’s getting a slight metallic rasp, like Lecter. I’m not lonely, no – far from it. Something else creeps up, a black dog with large silent paws.

It’s the time of year for it, so people tell me. I was stronger at the start of the year, and altogether more naive and unappreciative. Now I know time, its hard tug on others like a hook through the navel – I know what it means to care, to love, to shred your heart into tiny pieces and let them fly on the wind, hoping they’ll reach every poor fucker you give a damn about. Some get a surplus, while others get nothing at all, for days or months on end.
It’s a capricious wind, sorry to say.

I rarely sleep anymore. The night holds too many dreams, both bright and bitter. I want too many things at once, while my brain times itself out. Days become gluey on caffeine and thoughts of what might be; evenings are nodding off over the laptop, when I should be writing the novel I had high hopes in the year’s first blush, of editing up to scratch for an agent. It should’ve been finished by now, this draft. I’m so far behind, on this personal invisible timetable of mine – the one I’m sure you can relate to in some way, that burning desire to please yourself if not others. It’s more than half the reason I force myself to keep up the blog, the writing, when what I want to be doing is somewhere over the grass and up in the sky.

We forget ourselves in writing. It’s a deceptive charm. How many times have you felt guilt for actually daring to walk out the door and live your life, as a human being, as opposed to strings of words and a profile picture or four? I know I have, oh so many times this year. Truth is, we compel ourselves to feel the burning rush, the appreciation, the Win-All of accomplishment. It’s an addictive serotonin buzz.

Until the dizzying high subsides. The weariness whams back in, for me at least. Walking more than ever, realizing all too soon how complacent I was, reliant on my ex and less outgoings. Now I have a higher rent and a workload to match it. The brain is close to a whiteout, as experienced the other day at work, when I fell to the gum-tacky carpet and bruised my ego more than my arse. No one was there to see, thankfully – but it put my situation into a blender. I’ve pushed things too far again.

For those not in the know, I have experienced anorexia nervosa / athletica since age 16. My body’s a little diminished from the after-effects, and while I weigh more than a decade ago at inpatient admittance, there are less reserves to compensate for overburdening. I’ve pushed out articles, fiction, gym, all with the undercurrent-turmoil of being pushed pillar to post this whole damn year. My heart gained a lead gate.
What a cliche. Let’s try that again.

I’m burning out. Unable to heed my own advice, as per experience. It becomes too easy to lose myself in the Everyday – forgetting where I’ve come from, how it can still impact on my dreams. I can’t achieve all I want to, if I don’t back off a bit every now and then. March was the last time I took a holiday of any kind.

It’s been a case of Waiting for the Other Boot to drop, all year. Now I’m in a relatively secure place, I need to make sure my head’s in a safe one too. This means backing up. I recognized the propensity for addiction in my personality a long time ago; the responsibility comes with not only identifying but acting upon it, to reduce the car-crash. The same could be said of many I’ve spoken to this year, on and offline. If you know it’s in yourself to be triggered – to feel emotionally harmed by something someone has said, whatever the context – take yourself out of the scene. Don’t dig nails into a raw wound. If you’re tired, serotonin levels drop dramatically – you’ll feel blue, out of sorts, angsty, more likely to feel and cause pain.

I know what my own triggers are. Numbers in a competitive state; certain words related to eating disorders. I’ve seen them bandied around a few times on social media sites, and while it’s no one’s fault that they appeared, a little contextual grounding has to be put in place. I know in myself that these things will cause me pain, so take myself out of the situation. It’s not fair to expect the world to walk on eggshells; they’re only as fragile as your mindset.

If I don’t feel like talking about writing because my own flags, out of apathy or weariness, I won’t hang around those that do. Nor will I respond with a pithy comment to someone’s #Amwriting tweet; we’ve all been there, felt that burning rush to express the golden glow of triumph, that perplexing sunburst of emotion that accompanies a Really Good writing session. No one deserves it more than writers, for we put ourselves through a lifetime’s hell of loneliness (while telling ourselves we are but introverts, but come on, believe in me, I speak as one myself – we’ve all known it, that guilt for stepping out the door while a narrative bays in our ear.)

But as well as being on all sides and spots of the world, we’re all in very different emotional and mental states. As much as writing is Give and Take between creator and audience, so too is social media a format based upon tact and an alliance of good manners. If you know you’re not in the mood to respond in a decent way to someone’s joyous outpouring (of any kind, I use writing as a personal example), don’t jeopardize the friendship with a sentiment you’ll likely regret when in a better frame of mind. I know I’ve had to bite my tongue a few times.

The clouds do part. The blues fall away, the reds dwindle. The waters let us lie becalmed, to sleep, to dream without waking in the night. I know this will all pass, once I’ve given myself time to build up strength to row. Hopefully this confessional (in a recessional) will allow me to fend off the demon a bit longer. I’ll force myself to step up the defenses.

So if I seem a little strange, well that’s because I am. And tired, unable to keep up with reading others’ blogs lately; for that, I do apologise, but only because I’ve let myself get to the numb stage again. Where does the guilt halve itself and become complacency of other’s understanding?

I’ll take some leave soon, from Everything, to the detriment of the work load and blog hits, novel-progression. Weight gain will probably occur, to terrify and nourish me by turns.
We all need to know this fear and this recovery.
Meanwhile, numb is the new High.

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Finding Grace

14/10/2013 at 06:00 (Anorexia, Personal, Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Say Grace.
No, seriously. Speak it aloud.
Regardless of context, of religious connotations and concrete definitions, there’s an undeniable pleasant ring to Grace that has spanned centuries; like so many Old French-derived words, it has the crystal phonetics to retain a universal appeal.

Grace can be made synonymous with poise to describe physical movement; it can be the merciful pardon, willing to pass over another’s foibles. It can become the prayer uttered in the sight of one’s God before settling to a meal; the blessing of divine love, bestowed upon a religious following.

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I was asked by James Prescott (@JamesPrescott77) what the word Grace means to me, on a personal level. This is my response.

I am not a religious person; nor do I pertain to be particularly secular in my belief system. As an agnostic, I’m open in opinion and mind to others’ theories and beliefs, but am personally not willing to tie myself to any one creed, having no basis on which to form a steady structure – to be honest, the only thing I’ve come to believe in and respect above all else, is Nature.

This encompasses life and death, the progress and process of what must be. It defines the very paradox of how we go about our lives, in our own time frames, on this planet that’s just another speck in the sky. I’m not willing to believe that this was made so in a completely random act, with no control; nor will I pin a sentient perspective to the fact we’re here, that others have come before and likely more will come in our stead. And when I say “others”, I mean lifeforms in general. We’re all bound up in this, one way or another.

The grace I find in nature, has much to do with its Give and Take attitude – if a living abstract could be assigned an attitude for a moment. Whatever the circumstance, the situation, the fact it’s for better or worse depends entirely on context, and the perspective of who/whatever’s on the receiving end.

A volcanic eruption spews forth ash clouds to blacken the sky, perhaps for months; plants can’t photosynthesize and crops die as a result, while water is tainted. Livestock and humans perish from the smothering heat of Nuées ardentes (“incandescent cloud” / “glowing avalanche”), with their scalding loads of pumice, viscous magma and ash. Pyroclastic flow can wipe out entire cities, as seen with Vesuvius and Pompeii. Icecaps melt, bringing lahars and landslips. That’s even before we get onto structural damage among local human habitations.

But the flipside is fertility, of both natural surroundings and local economy. Soil is enriched with the minerals brought from the heart of the planet. The flooding waters, once they’ve receded, may have deposited an unlikely treasure-trove of yet more minerals, and stones embedded with crystals – both to be sold for local commerce. Ancient civilizations, seemingly obliterated, can be learned from when the pyroclastic flow has cooled and set – a poignant message of the past, to illustrate the volcanic dangers for our future.

It’s this graceful and deadly Give and Take of nature that I adhere to – the closest I would come to aligning myself with a religion. I’ve found that it’s not something to follow; paganism and Druidism still felt too formulaic in my youth, for something that – on a very basic level – is just an appreciation and respect for one’s surroundings. The simple acts are, to me, equivalent of uttering and performing ritualistic prayer to return nature’s grace: Not dropping litter; keeping off of flourishing areas of new growth, or taking care to avoid trampling ancient rock formulations that are prone to erosion; climbing trees, without feeling the need to peel off bark or carve initials that leave a mark of oneself, which the tree itself couldn’t give a damn about and future generations of humans probably won’t either. That peeled bark exposes the tree’s flesh, drying it out. A branch can wither and die from this seemingly small act, taking nests down when it falls; cutting off life for those to come, arboreal and human.

Nature is deadly, sure. Seemingly merciless, sympathetic only to its own environmental needs and “cruel” whims. But it’s this continuous cycle that I find so appealing. It’s a grace defined by its own neutrality – the ability to regenerate life, inability to favour any one species, race, trend or ethos. Evolution and nature work hand in abstract hand, and if some fall by the wayside to keep the planet ticking over, that’s as it should be.

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Dialing things down a bit –
When I was a child, I danced ballet. Grace, poise, elegance were words that ran a thread through the training that began when I lived in Germany. My father was stationed at the nearby RAF base, and my poor mother was left to deal with two daughters, 3 years apart in age and different as night and day. She was often exhausted by us, for individual reasons, and by our energy. I’m told I used to regularly make her cry, though not out of nastiness; just an inquisitive nature that somehow got me into the kind of scrapes to cause scrapes …And cuts, bruises, iron-burns, palms slit open on glass I’d mistaken for jewels…

She hit upon the idea of dance. Not only as a way of wearing me and my sister out, but to perhaps instill in us (well, me) a sense of decorum. I think perhaps she had the same misplaced mindset as many others – that ballet is for girls exclusively, can teach an appreciation for all things “girly.” At the tender age of four, I already had this idea in mind, and dragged my heels when brought to the first class.

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(picture courtesy of Gudu Ngiseng Blog)

The funny thing is, the hard work it all turned out to be – routine training at the barre, with pointed toes, bend and flex of muscles, maintaining a perfect circle in a spin – appealed to my rough ‘n ready nature. It calmed my head, already full of white noise, and burned up that excessive energy. It was my sister who would drop out, citing boredom. I continued up to the age of nine, harbouring hopes of becoming a prima ballerina. A fall in school, a bad ankle sprain that still plagues me today, put paid to those dreams.

Still, I find that the training – so like the basic level all military personnel go through in their first three months – has stood me in good stead. It comes back to gift me in adult life. I walk tall, no matter what my mood; it’s second nature to pull my shoulders back, align my spine to the backs of my legs. I’ve won over potential employers with the simple fact I sit up straight, appearing alert even if my mind is wandering. It did get me into trouble on the inpatient unit though, where I spent several months for treatment of anorexia; staff mistook my seeming inability to relax as a “behaviour”. Context is a funny thing.

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I’ll often practice old favourite moves, for the sheer pleasure of feeling how alive my body is. It’s a sensation never to be underestimated, the natural gift of feeling grace in one’s physicality. Whatever your own state, don’t let go of that appreciation of what your body is capable of. The time spent on that ward, I was stuck in a wheelchair for the first week, too underweight to be allowed to walk. There was a great risk of slipping into a coma, as my blood sugar had dropped to subnormal levels; not to mention what was going on with electrolytes, and my heart. Still, the muscles of my legs twitched and trembled with frantic energy, a burning desire to move. Adrenalin can keep an anorexic going for years. It was an itch I wasn’t permitted to scratch for long months. Progression from the chair, was slow – corridor-pacing, to snail-pace group walks under the impartial gaze of staff; and finally, oh God, heady freedom – walking alone around the sprawling grounds of the hospital, and thence to the nearby town.

I will never forget how long it took to relearn how to walk heel to toe. I’d had a punishing control of my stride for so long, it felt natural to push to the point of burnout, whatever the exercise. It was the greatest gift to stride again, unimpeded by staff or anorexia’s whip, with the natural grace and fluidity taught in those early ballet lessons, when we learned how to smile for the audience even while it felt like our backs and hearts were breaking.

In those formative early years when we returned to the UK from Germany, my grandmother became my confidante. She saw me for who I was – the middle child of three, feeling a bit left out because of the simple mechanics of there only being two parents (neither of which I could relate to as much as my siblings), with too much racing through her mind at once to keep her body still. I got into those scrapes, so she told me, because I didn’t have enough hands to accomplish all that I wanted to do at once.
She’s a live-wire herself, even in later years. But while I’ll only ever be an impatient git, her creed is to bring calm to those about her; to turn the other cheek, showing merciful grace however possible.

Not that she’ll hold her tongue where a scolding is needed. I learned early on that you can’t get a thing past her. Raised by her own grandmother, a Victorian lady of strong traditional values and family presence, my Nanna is a women of conviction. She believes in the good of others. No doubt she will have had cause to doubt this at certain points in her life. But she is a religious woman, upholding a quiet faith in God through childhood years of poverty in Tyneside; being made an orphan by age ten; motherhood with three children, and moving down South to follow my grandfather’s career at the observatory, Herstmonceux.

The great unknown has made up much of her life. Still, she bears it with a grace and dignity I’m forever fascinated and inspired by.

Now in her pale years, she lives with a sense of Self and gratitude for our family. Her ability to find peace when alone – she’s another introvert – was a comforting lesson to a child who felt odd for not being the socialite her sister was. Later, in adolescence and when the actions of my peers left me ashamed for them, her simple elegance was a reminder of who I was, to stay true to what I wanted to become. She’s always supported my writing, has provided a listening ear and ready wit when I needed a spirit-boost. There’s a hard-earned gravity in her words; she won’t say anything without cause, and to be honest some of my best memories of our time spent together, are the great wells of silence when we thought together.

I owe my Nanna a good deal, for providing the core values of appreciation and respect for others that seem to have evolved into empathy. Handy for writing, as well as dealing with the real world. Rather than resort to strong words and actions, we prefer to maintain dignity in the face of ugly manners and disrespect. That’s not to say I will back down, but there’s a need for control in such situations. Loss of it is letting your guard down; a discredit of grace.

It stands that, as an adult, I make my way through the world and fall back on what she has taught me. There are no answers to the questions begged in darkest moments – why people act the way they do, say the things they say, with a cruelty and love inherent of human nature. Some things are irrevocable, left hanging in the air. We’re a chaotic race; there will always be those who give, while others take. I feel that it’s in our best interests and in our power, to carefully govern the way we react to others. I’ll admit to having wished pain upon those who’ve hurt me in the past. I wouldn’t be human if I hadn’t at least entertained such vengeful ideas.
But all they afforded me were brief euphoric sunsets, before the chill nights of despair clawed back up.

Revenge is an easy path to follow, in comparison to the twisting way of merciful grace. There are roots that will twist and tangle about the feet, stones to unsettle every step. Time doesn’t heal, so much as numb certain wounds. I refuse to become another lost soul, wandering the world in a stupor of bitterness and dangling on the claws of one addiction after another. Been there, done that; believe me, the half-life was short indeed.

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Grace to me, is being able to look upon the face of the abuser, the name-caller, the one who broke your heart and beat your face out of “love” – and to turn away, the stronger for leaving them to stew in their own weakness. To offer forgiveness, if it’s in your heart to do so – and if not, to leave without looking back. No regret, no guilt, no more acceptance of suffering or being made to feel the victim by those who still live in fear.

Grace is a byword for elegance and good manners, for respect of others and the world we inhabit together, for better or worse. It’s a means of walking upright, back straight and legs poised, ready to carry us beyond what we thought ourselves capable of.

Whatever your take on the word, don’t be afraid to uphold its truth. Whether offering prayer to your God, or extending mercy to one who has shown you none, remember it as being alike to the subtle truth behind the half-smile on a dancer’s face; one that tells the world, my life is my own.

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