3

Transformation, faith and depression

Last Sunday I stopped by to pick up an elderly Friend from the residential home where she lives to give her a lift to my Quaker Meeting for Worship. Like many times before, when I arrived she was still in bed and feeling too unwell to attend. We talked for a while and she expressed guilt and sadness at not being able to come. As someone who regularly lives with bouts of depression, I heard echoes of this in my Ffriend.

When I got to Meeting for Worship I sat in the deepening gathered silence and reached for Quaker Faith & Practice, hoping to find a passage that spoke to the intense empathy, concern and emotion that the time spent with my Ffriend had evoked. It was clear that it was incredibly distressing to her that her body was wearing out before her mind and being were ready. I looked at passages on growing old and death, and at passages about depression, but I did not find anything that spoke to me. In a way the problem was that all the passages were too positive – too willing to look at the dark side but then counter with Light and acceptance.

For those of us who struggle with depression, sometimes there is nothing that we can do but, if we are lucky, learn to what I call ‘sit with it’. For me, the most positive outcome I can hope for during a period of depression is that I physically live through it and do not make any drastic decisions or changes during this period. Sometimes even having someone else to sit with you is no comfort at all. I did, however, receive a response to my wish to find something that spoke to me. Later that week, in one of the daily emails I subscribe to from Richard Rohr, he talked about what it meant to follow Jesus, and about agreeing to ‘…carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within [our]selves…’. He then wrote about trusting ‘the daily paradox of life and death as the two sides of everything’, saying: ‘We, too, can walk this path of welcoming disappointment and self-doubt, by “suffering” the full truth of reality. Our vocation is a willingness to hold—and transform—the dark side of things instead of reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere.’.

God is found everywhere, even in deep depression, and learning to ‘sit with’ our feelings and experience can have a transformative power all its own.

Anne de Gruchy

Quotes taken from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation: From the Center for Action and Contemplation on Friday, June 1, 2018 – ‘Solidarity with the World’

This passage contains content adapted from:
Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999, 2003), 179-180; and
Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 22-23.

Copyright © 2018 by CAC. Used by permission of CAC. All rights reserved worldwide. http://www.cac.org.

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8

Stories: Great Beginnings and Endings – but what about the bit in the Middle?!

This week I am back to our Round Robin blog post with themes explored by a series of different writers. We have been given the following challenge:

How do you ensure a story has a good beginning, a satisfying ending, and good continuity in between?

I realize that this could be the shortest Round Robin in history, because the truthful answer is: I haven’t a clue!!!

My problem, as I have written about before, is that my books all tend to start with themes rather than stories. So, for instance, I might want to explore how someone copes with the loss of a baby, or with a long-term progressive illness and having to accept carers in their life, or how some who must – in Quaker speak – have ‘that of God’ in them can come to a point where they can kill people. I may know the ‘journey’ a character will take emotionally from ‘a’ to ‘b’, but the bit in the middle starts off as a mystery.

These themes obviously need characters and a storyline in order to explore them fully and to hold readers’ interest, but I find it really difficult to create enough ‘narrative drive’ – the peaks and troughs of what is happening, the key goal that takes you to the end. So, there I am with some ideas and relationships between characters in my head but how on earth do these become a proper ‘story’?

With my first (learning-curve) book I plotted the whole thing carefully in advance. There was a beginning (a trigger point where my main character lost her job due to her depression), a middle of sorts (where she travelled around Scotland with a complete stranger) and an ending (where she returns home changed and has to make a decision about the key relationship in her life). As you can see, it is not especially action-packed – definitely more of a reflective book with the landscape as an influencing and descriptive factor.

In the next book that I wrote I tried to ‘cure’ the lack of drama by having a lot more actually happening with the plot. The result was that I had to completely rewrite the book at a later stage because it set off like a steam train, then eventually ran out of puff! Around this time I went to some workshops about ‘pitching’ books and this really helped me, because it taught me to look at the emotional and psychological happenings in a different light – as things that provide their own stories and goals for the characters.

A common criticism of my work when I share my writing with my local critique group is that there are a lot of dramatic things happening but it doesn’t feel dramatic to read. My agent describes the current novel that she is sending out on my behalf as a ‘quiet book’, and I totally get that this is how my writing feels, however busy the plotlines. I like exploring people’s psychology, and how different events shape them as a human being. I like description, and a sense of the underlying current that moves things along.

Having said that, this current novel is the one that I am really proud of and that I feels ‘works’. I think it is successful because I really got under the characters’ skin – or they got under mine. It became important what happened to them, and although their stories are explored in a gentle way, they nevertheless have impact. The landscape, too, became a character, and the sequential plotting of the story to mirror the fall in the Garden of Eden seemed to work. My problem now is how do I follow this? I am currently in the middle of editing the first draft of the next book and although the characters are speaking to me I just can’t seem to get the middle section right.

I have just got to watch out that I don’t end up with a filling-less sandwich – all front and back and nothing in the middle at all!!

See how other writers sort out their beginnings, endings and the stuff inbetween at:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1fk

© Anne de Gruchy

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In Praise of Ten Under-Appreciated Things – No 3: Human Beings

What is the difference between this photograph…

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Shutlingsloe

…and this one?

The answer? PEOPLE! (Well, you may just see a disappearing blob of orange in the distance in the first photograph, but we do have to keep the detail-spotters happy).

Of course the scenery is beautiful either way (we were walking at Shutlingsloe) but the whole point is: people make things better. Not only do they make things better, they help us to gain perspective – whether that’s the size of the mountain we are climbing or the way we relate to things and to other people day to day.

Why am I suddenly so interested in people as an under-appreciated thing? Well, recently there have been two factors that are steering me to value all over again how amazing human beings are. I thought I’d share them with you.

Firstly, I have been having spammer problems with this WordPress blog. Of course we are all used to spammer problems in this weirdly wired-up society, but it doesn’t half irritate me. Also, if I am not in a good state of mind, it can make me extremely anxious. I don’t need to know, repeated times a day, that gobbledygookname@outlook.com is following my blog and will receive an email whenever I post. And it doesn’t help that goobledygookname does not appear in my list of subscribers so I am denied the satisfaction of deleting them.

The problem with spam emails resulted in an acquaintance of mine suggesting that I add in one of those neat little tick boxes with the words ‘I am not a robot’ beside it. This is apparently not within the remit of the basic WordPress functionality that my blog is limited to, but it got me thinking about how, in a world where we have to formally admit to all and sundry that it is actually a human being trying to communicate online, we totally under-appreciate the qualities and importance of other people in our lives.

Secondly, and following on from this, is the fact that I am currently battling depression again big time. I sit around weeping and trying to force myself to face the day. It hasn’t been this bad since I was in my dysfunctional twenties and it’s scary. However I have become more resilient and self-aware over the intervening decades and when I hit rock bottom recently I pinged a few texts out to some of my lovely friends and waited on the outcome. The result was supportive phone calls and texts from a couple of friends and a lovely day out walking with another. Human beings are what make life meaningful and we just don’t appreciate them enough!

I am going to leave you with a quote that just pinged through into my email while I was writing this post. It was shared by one of the local Quaker meetings in our Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Area Meeting who kindly do a weekly email update giving the insights and conversations they have had. This week they shared the philosopher Mencius’s concept of the capricious world, and it so totally describes what I believe it means to be a human being that I had to pass it on:

‘Living in a capricious world means accepting that we do not live within a
stable moral cosmos that will always reward people for what they do… if our
world is indeed constantly fragmented and unpredictable, then it is
something we can constantly work on bettering. We can go into each situation
resolved to be the best human being we can be, not because of what we’ll get
out of it, but simply to affect others around us for the better, regardless
of the outcome. We can cultivate our better sides and face this
unpredictable world, transforming it as we go.

‘It is a very different vision from asking grand questions such as “Who am
I?” and “How should I plan out my life”. Instead we work constantly to alter
things at a small, daily level. And if we’re successful, we can build
tremendous communities around us in which people can flourish. And even then
we can continue to work. Our work – of bettering oneself and others to
produce a better world is never over’

(p84 The Path – A New Way to Think About Everything: Michael Puett &
Christine Gross – Loh: Viking: 2016)

© Anne de Gruchy

9

Story Ideas and the Benefits of Bedside Stories

This month the Round Robiners have been asked to ponder where our story ideas come from. At this point I have a confession to make – I am simply rubbish at stories and in no way would I consider myself a storyteller.

Collective gasp!

Well, you may ask, what the hell are you doing calling yourself a writer then? And a writer of fiction to boot.

The truth is, I’m an ideas person. I love concepts, and science, and the way the truths of previous generations are overturned. I love that this inherently means that many of the ‘truths’ of our generation are likely to be overturned too. We live with uncertainty every day and one moment’s event – a car crash, the death of a husband and breadwinner, the onset of a disease, coming into money suddenly – can change how we see the world forever. I also love to explore psychologies and how these kinds of event affect people – how different people react to different situations.

So I suppose I often start back to front. For instance the book I am working on now started from the idea of exploring how a person’s world contracts when they are living with a progressive illness. There was a concrete beginning to this when a close friend was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and suddenly his world was turned upside down. Mix this in with my interest in the role of caring for someone – something that has been close to my heart since my mother died and left my father struggling with dementia, poor sight and cancer – and there was the germ of a story theme, but definitely not yet a story.

Other aspects of my stories might come from real events. The day before I went down to London to meet with my new agent was the day of the Westminster Bridge terror attack. As I travelled down on the train, the events of the day before stayed in my mind. I walked through the streets to the agency’s office and was really struck by how calm London felt just 24 hours later. Cue the invention of another character who had been caught up in the attack – and the exploration of how this impacted on his family.

Combining my themes and ideas into proper stories is the big problem I have. My very first novel, which I now see as a training ground for my writing, took two autobiographical events and framed them into a story. One event was a holiday travelling round Scotland by train – the landscape really spoke to me and it felt healing in a powerful way. So I combined this with a character who was grieving the loss of her baby and threw in a stranger for her to travel with. I still love aspects of this story but it fell down because I hadn’t got to know my characters and their motivations properly – there wasn’t enough of a goal or driver to the story and the characters were not engaging enough. Maybe one day I’ll return to the basics of this story because I still love the premise and it also seemed to appeal to the agents that I sent it to.

I suppose one of my problems is that I am very much a literary reader and writer. A lot of my favourite books do not have the normal hooks and peaks and troughs of the page-turners that publishers are looking for. I admire prose that is dense and poetic – that appeals to the senses and the intellect at the same time. Yes, you need to ground it in stories and characters that we care about, but the atmosphere of a book is really important to me. That’s why, in the novel that my agent is currently seeking a home for, the landscape of the Lincolnshire Fens became a character in its own right – I even plotted it a ‘storyline’ for it within the book.

I love history, too. My current book takes a character who has Multiple Sclerosis and sends her travelling to the places she had previous worked during an acclaimed photojournalist career. I was delving into the history of Bosnia and the conflicts of that region, looking at the events that brought down the Berlin Wall. My agent warned me of the dangers of getting too distracted from the narrative drive of the book, and I think she probably caught my writing-weakness head on – I can get too absorbed in the detail and forget the real goal of my protagonist and the need to keep a momentum leading towards this.

So, maybe I need to go back to the simpler stories that my mother told me as a child. The ones she would invent as she went along to the light of my favourite bedside bunny lamp. She certainly held my attention, and I remember some of the tales she invented to this day.

Find out how other writers get their story ideas at these blog sites:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1dm
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

0

In Praise of Ten Under-Appreciated Things – No 2: Fairy Lights

Oh yes, Anonymous, my rather sparkly house sharer, this one is definitely for you!

I love fairy lights. And, it is fair to say, now that Christmas is over, that my house still boasts it’s fair share of colourful twinkly things. There is the set of glowing red flower-shaped ones in the lounge and the delicate woodland glow of a garland of tiny green lights that creep along the picture frames above my piano in the dining room. I have also acquired a set of multi-coloured fairy lights in my bedroom, trailing around a pair of black metalwork candle sconces. This set crept in stealthily – appearing at Christmas and then proving so irresistibly pretty that I couldn’t take them down.

And this is just on the inside!

Go into my garden at night and you will find a magnolia tree garlanded with glowing balls in shades of pink and green and blue (if the sun shone that day, of course – the lights being solar-powered) and various lanterns standing sentinel at the corners of flower beds. One of my favourite things to do is to sit in my conservatory (festooned with wooden cut-out lantern fairy lights, of course!) on a summer’s night with a few candles added to the mix, looking out on a garden that is pin-pricked with lights, holding a glass of good single malt (as peaty as possible) in my hand.

My lodgers, too, have shown a great fondness over the years for these multiplying mutants, festooning the beams and angles of my attic room with light and colour. My favourite were a set of beautiful pink flamingos. Another quirky design was to be found in a friend’s kitchen, where glowing red chilli peppers ran around the ceiling as you chopped and sautéd and blended.

Of course fairy lights are not always trouble-free. I positively dislike the icy glow of the newer LED lights – they may be low energy but they do not have the warmth and beauty of the good old-fashioned types. These you don’t appear to be able to buy any more – which is a pity because the bulbs eventually blow and cannot be replaced leading to the necessity of early disposal or intermittent gapping if you can by-pass the fuse bulbs. (No, I didn’t advise that!).

One of the problems with the appreciation of fairy lights is that people go into overkill. They use them everywhere – up every wall and window – until you might as well have put in a couple of giant search lights instead. At Christmas I feel sorry for the National Grid – and for all my eco-minded friends who have campaigned and scrimped all year to reduce power consumption only to have their targets blown in a week or two by people who think that the front of a house is not complete without snowflakes and santas and reindeer lit by a thousand watts.

But fairy lights, as their name would suggest, have a bit of magic about them. You can’t be sad when there are fairy lights. Well, maybe you can be sad in a slightly melancholy way, but the fairy lights are bound to keep you company and cheer you up a little. If I’m feeling low I simply switch them on and everything feels instantly better.

On reflection – and the reflection of fairy lights in a dark winter window is hard to beat – maybe fairy lights should actually be in a list called: ‘In Praise of Ten Rather Over-Appreciated Things’!

www.annedegruchy.co.uk image: fairy lights

MAD MOMENT

The huge long lonely drive all the way down to Cornwall on my own in pouring rain (necessitated by my promising man walking out on me the night before) – Oops.

MARVEL MOMENT

Cornwall itself – healing, peaceful, crashing waves on lonely beaches to match my mood – with the additional surprise bonus of tea and biccies with the wonderful Dawn French. Oh, and a talk on Tall Ships in the Parish Hall. And the logburner. And…

© Anne de Gruchy

10

Charismatic Characters (even the irritating ones!)

Continuing with my Round Robin blog posts, the topic we have been invited to write about this month is:

How do we express and expose our characters’ thoughts and emotions in our writing? How do we use viewpoint, and how do we switch between characters?

The first point I need to make is that I LOVE intense, emotional or poetic writing. My own writing might not match my ideal, but this is what I would hope to produce. Language is the key, and language also opens up places and characters.

I suppose that in a way ‘place’ is as important to me as the people who inhabit it. Landscapes speak to me – like Jon McGregor’s sparse but precise and beautifully balanced descriptions of Lincolnshire in This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, or the South Island New Zealand beach setting in Keri Hulme’s The Bone People. Place is what people respond to, and their response to somewhere – be it a landscape or a building or something that brings back a memory – is one thing that helps an author draw out their character.

It’s hard to say which kind of viewpoint works best for me – either as a reader or a writer. The idea of writing, first person, entirely from the main character’s point of view, is hugely engaging when you do it – so much easier to get inside someone’s head and go on a good old rant – but it also has huge limitations. I found this with my second novel that eventually became a first person coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of the declining clothing industry in Nottingham in the 1990s. Because my main character is a somewhat stroppy teenager as the story sets off, how do the readers get to like her? She has plenty of adversity to contend with and a fighting spirit, but each of us, as readers, probably draws a different line as to where something changes from adventurous, feisty and admirable to just plain irritating or badly behaved.

Then there is the decision to make as to whether to allow the character hindsight – so that they can almost ‘narrate’ their back story and the reader can tell in advance whether they’ve learnt from their mistakes. Personally I love writing in the present tense which mitigates against doing this – mainly because it feels so immediate and allows a reader to feel ‘in’ the situation with a character. Trying to place a reader right in a situation – maybe one of danger or where moral choices have to be made – helps them to ‘buy in’ to the character’s emotional journey and identify with it.

Our characters also need other characters to bounce off. The other characters’ reactions will tell us if someone is rejected or on the fringes and will demonstrate the day-to-day challenges they have to face. Conversely, how a character responds to a situation betrays their personality and state of mind – whether they panic, or show sympathy, or have a chip on their shoulder. I used to write in the emotion that a character was feeling too much or too literally (‘she was anxious’), but have learned to let their reaction (a body twitch or habit, a knee-jerk response rather than something that reflects their true feelings) show the reader what they really feel. And of course there is nothing better that having two intense and most-likely mismatched characters who come head-to-head in a book and fight out their space and the storyline to the end.

It is fascinating to find out how a reader views a character you have written. A friend who critiqued the first draft of my most recent novel for me said of one character: ‘what a woman!’. I loved that – that they had engaged enough to feel this about her. In writing a novel you have to come to a position where you absolutely know how your characters would respond or react to something – and make sure you let them be true to their own personality. Nothing irritates a reader more, for instance, than an ending that is clever but that is achieved at the expense of ‘keeping in character’ right to the end.

If we use third person – he, she, etc – and allow several different characters to have voices in our book then we can see the same situation but from different people’s perspectives, so a quick line of space or section break and a flip to a different character’s voice can be very effective. I tend to plan a book’s outline structure with the ‘viewpoint’ of each scene listed at the side and aim for a mix of the main viewpoints so that no one character is lost for too long in the storyline. Sometimes a character becomes so strong, or the flow of a scene feels so powerful, that I just have to follow that viewpoint despite my planning for some other one to take the fore. It feels good when the story is flowing strongly in this way.

The other thing I have learned to do better over time is to keep secrets. The reader needs to find out things about the characters and their past experiences and influences, and in real life we rarely know these things about the people that we meet. Revealing these things through conversations or plot developments or backstory makes the reader reassess what they have come to think about a character. In my most recent book one of the central characters, who is deaf, befriends a man in her village who shares her sense of internal isolation. We, as readers, know from page one that he is a killer, but she does not. It was a big decision to make as to whether to reveal this early on or gradually – should the reader be placed in a position to worry about her, or to share some dawning about this man’s past? But giving his background upfront, and then elaborating on where this stemmed from during the book, also allowed our killer’s viewpoint to become more meaningful – a chance to share his thoughts and emotions, too.

Find out how other bloggers bring their characters to life:

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1ag
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com 

© Anne de Gruchy

0

In Praise of Ten Under-Appreciated Things – No 1: Masking Tape

In anticipation of the New Year I thought that I’d try something new with my blog and give you a ‘mini series’ to savour. And what better way to start the New Year than with a post about Masking Tape!

Last week, my internet connection was playing up. According to my house-sharer (who uses the internet for long-enough periods to notice, unlike me) it was going down every couple of hours for ten minutes or so – certainly enough to make watching her latest Netflix series genuinely annoying. We exchanged watching Netflix for watching the lights on my router – a flickering bundle of green and red to compete with my Christmas tree. Sadly, the intermittent red showed there to be a problem, Houston.

There followed telephone calls to my phone and internet provider (yes, I am still on a phone-line system for my computer needs!) and to a local DIY store to order and replace the parts that might be going wrong. It could be, I was assured, the connection box on the wall (my cost and more hassle if so), the filter, the phone divider point, or the router itself. The bits duly arrived and were duly tested in due order and we may (or may not) have sorted the problem.

So what, you ask, does this have to do with masking tape? Well, as the photograph below illustrates, the phone point connection into my house is located in a very awkward place on the wall above the narrow end of the windowsill of the bay window of my lounge. In addition to the risk of the wiring and filter being moved when the curtains are drawn, there is nowhere to sit the filter or ongoing connections – which would then naturally dangle from the phone point like a tumbling acrobat tower. Enter the masking tape. A couple of wide strips to anchor the filter to the end of the windowsill with the ongoing wires pointed in the right direction, and we are sorted.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: masking tape holding up telephone filter

This got me thinking about how much I love masking tape – and about how many other under-appreciated things I might write about. I made a list, but – TEASER WARNING – you’ll have to read on over the coming months to find out what made it into my top ten!

As for the masking tape – it floats my boat for many reasons that might include the following:

• What better way to anchor the wire of the fairy lights that I wind up the stairs at Christmas? Masking tape traps it to the floor where the wire goes from the power point, under the rug, to the stairs on the other side of the hall. No risk of tripping, unless you’ve been mixing those Christmas drinks again.

• When I am painting my skirting boards I can whiz along quickly without fear of snaking a line of paint along the floorboards, too. They, of course, are protected by a beautiful line of masking tape.

• When I am drilling holes in dusty walls and don’t want dusty carpets underneath, a small piece of masking tape angled out from the wall beneath where I am making the hole will catch all the residue on the sticky side of the tape. This has the additional benefit of being able to fold the sticky bits in on themselves to trap the dust in a nice masking tape parcel that can then be thrown away.

• Masking tape cat-hair collector! Apply it to your carpet or sofa, but try to avoid the cat. (Actually, wearing plastic gloves and dampening your hands works equally well and probably collects more hair – the cat doesn’t like wet plastic gloves, either).

• Good for sealing the top of the Christmas tree box in a way that holds everything together just long enough to undo it all again (without damage to the box) in a year’s time.

• With masking tape you can seal the back of framed pictures but still change your mind without causing too much damage – useful for when your son changes his girlfriend or you change your cat (no, of course I wouldn’t!).

Of course the definitive properties of masking tape that make it so useful are that: a) it sticks to anything, and: b) it unsticks from anything. Of course eventually it dries up and unsticks regardless of whether you want it to or not, but I am happy to forgive it this small weakness.

Please do feel free to suggest your own uses. I could equally have sung the praises of duct tape (Duck brand or otherwise), but I would probably not have been unstuck in time to post this…

© Anne de Gruchy