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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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

Deafness and Dementia

Today, dear readers, I bring you the saga of dad and his rather wonky relationship with his hearing aids, and also the sad tale of going to a magnificent organ recital at Southwell Minster without being able to hear properly.

Dad is fairly deaf. Without his hearing aids he is unable to hear much, but even with them we often find he cannot tell what we are saying. Sometimes he will sit and fiddle and pull them out of his ears, and the hearing aids will squeak and whine and drive everybody nuts except dad who cannot make out what we are moaning about. In the past he used to take them apart and try to fix them and was then unable to put them back together again, but his Alzheimer’s is so bad now that it no longer even occurs to him to attempt this.

Now when dad can’t hear the first thing I do is to persuade him to hand over the goods so that I can check his hearing aids. This usually results in the discovery that:

a) He has not put a battery in, or it has fallen out and he didn’t notice.
b) The battery still has the sticky label on the back.
c) The tubes in the hearing aids are blocked with wax.

Sometimes it is simply a case of a dud battery, but dad no longer appears to hear or understand the diddly tune that the hearing aid plays to indicate that the battery is working.

Last week I visited dad to take him for a walk with the dog and then waffles and maple syrup at the local coffee shop afterwards. When I arrived a rather puzzled looking staff member was trying to clean and adjust his hearing aids. Together we tried to prize off tubes, clear out wax, and find some batteries that actually appeared to work. This task was not helped by the fact that the box of spare batteries had magically disappeared.

Meanwhile dad huffed and puffed around his room, unable to hear a word we said and unable to read the messages I tried to write down because he could not see. He looked for his ‘puffer’ – a rubber contraption that puffs air through the hearing aid tubes to clear them of wax and rubbish. I tried to indicate to him that I had already managed to clean the tubes but he was determined. The proverbial rock and the hard place would both disintegrate instantly if they encountered a dad-level of stubbornness.

Eventually dad located the ‘puffer’ on his washbasin and shared with us that he has been filling it with water and squirting this into his ears to clean them! (Dad, along with his dementia and poor eyesight, is finding some intriguing new uses for things – for instance smoothing the bumps on his nose using his electric razor or rubbing toothpaste into his leg instead of his ulcer-prevention cream).

Hearing aids sorted, dad was still unable to hear. We consulted one of the nursing team about checking his ears for wax and syringing them properly, but this had been done recently and was not safe to do on a frequent basis. We resigned ourselves to dad being completely deaf for the day and breathed a sigh of relief that the service appointment I had made at the hearing aid clinic happened to be the next day.

So how did things pan out? Why, you might ask, did dad have to go to the organ concert four days later without his hearing aids?

Well apparently the hearing aids work perfectly, but sadly dad was found to have a bad ear infection in both ears – no doubt exacerbated by using a ‘puffer’ as an impromptu syringe. He was still under treatment for the infection when we did our trip to Southwell Minster (Matthew Martin’s organ playing was amazing, with a very interesting repertoire of pieces) and his hearing aids were soaking in sterilizing solution. Despite going hearing aid-less, dad could hold a level of conversation if I spoke loudly as I faced him – it was the infection that had rendered him unable to hear at all.

What struck me most, though, was how absolutely helpless we were when dad found himself completely deaf. We could not communicate or reassure him at all because of his poor eyesight – he has recently been registered as Severely Sight Impaired – and because of his tendency to fixate on inappropriate things. It felt so sad seeing him flail around in distress seeking his own solutions and repeatedly asking ‘why can’t I have my hearing aids?’ It reminded me how important gentle reassurance and explanation can be for people like dad who are living with dementia.

Hopefully by the time I see him next he will be back to normal – whatever that is in his dazzlingly different dementia universe – complete with hearing aids and pristinely clean ear canals.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Dad and Southwell Minster

MAD MOMENT

It has been a while since I posted a ‘mad moment’ so I shall cheat and borrow one from a few weeks back when I was ill with a viral bug and simply couldn’t stand up without fainting. I was crawling round the house and going to the loo was a trial. One time I could feel myself losing consciousness as I tried to reach the loo and the next moment I woke up on the floor with a broken toilet seat cover lying on top of me. The pain from the fall and the damage to my pelvis has been excruciating. It felt so surreal, just coming to after blacking out and finding myself there with the toilet cover and bruises all up my right side. Am very nervous of any feelings of dizziness now.

MARVEL MOMENT

Wonderful walk round the heathland and woods of Woolbeding Common during a visit to Sussex for a friend’s wedding anniversary do. Just drinking in the peace and watching the butterflies. The joy of being able to stand upright and go for short walks again!

© Anne de Gruchy

3

In Praise of Eggs

Over the past couple of weeks my father and I have made several trips out to some of his favourite watery places – though, to be honest, any place with water is a favourite with dad. And, it being the time of year it is, we had some wonderful encounters with birds and their offspring.

During a visit to Attenborough Nature Reserve Dad managed a long slow walk along the lake edge. He was rewarded for his efforts while we rested on a bench and watched a family of mallards with no less that eleven ducklings meandering and re-grouping in eddies behind their parents. ‘It’s nice here,’ he said, and indeed it was.

Another day we drove out to Trent Lock. Here you will find the blessed confluence of many of Dad’s favourite things. Firstly there is water in several forms: the River Trent, the Erewash Canal and the Cranfleet Cut, and, disappearing off towards the power station, the River Soar. In addition to these joys there are also trains! The main line from London splits here with arms disappearing towards both Derby and Nottingham. Not only that, but the trains travel on bridges over the water.

Here, though, is the sad part. My father’s eyesight is getting so poor that even when a train went over the bridge ahead of us he could hear it but not see it at all.

We took ourselves off for consolation at the teashop where they were serving the most delicious home-made ice cream. It was one of those 30 degrees plus days and I had even managed to persuade Dad to come out without his full vest and jacket regalia. Further, I’d managed to do an application of sun-cream without so much as a grumpy word in response! Clearly the omens of the day were good. Dad, to my surprise, chose pineapple and coconut flavour – even after a taste test – and I had lemon cheesecake (ice cream that is, with the biscuit bits mixed in. Yum!).

We sat there, licking happily. The elderly couple at the next table started up a conversation and Dad was able to compare careers with another man who was an engineer who had worked in the civil service. They had both also worked for the Ministry of Defence. I’m afraid I couldn’t resist revealing my Quakerly and pacifist tendencies at the end of our companion’s proud assertions about his work with Trident. I once experienced a very profound Meeting for Worship outside the Faslane Naval Base on the Clyde – the home of the submarines armed with Trident nuclear missiles. ‘We used to have a lot of problems with you lot,’ our companion told me. I’m sad to say that I simply thought: Yes!!!

Once we’d said our goodbyes, Dad and I wandered on down the canal where we encounted a family of swans. It must have been a productive and predator-light year because there were no less that eight already well-grown cygnets. My father was interested and tried to phrase his ideas but was clearly stuck for the relevant words.

‘The swans and their’ – big pause – ‘babies,’ he said. ‘When they give birth…’ he said. His mind was moving almost visibly. ‘When the babies come out.’

He stopped, flummoxed.

‘The cygnets hatch from eggs,’ I offered. ‘The mother bird sits on a nest with the eggs in to keep them warm until they crack open and the baby birds come out.’

‘Eggs!!’ said my father, happily, as he listened to my explanation. Then: ‘They’re very clever things.’

It occurred to me once again as we had this conversation, how the most effective and reassuring way to deal with someone with dementia is often the same way you might deal with a young child: by offering clarity and simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ choices, one at a time; by explaining about things that they are curious about; by never reacting in a way that implies they are stupid.

But there was a difference between Dad forgetting that eggs were the way birds hatched their young and the way a young child might learn about them. He clearly required the explanation of how eggs worked in addition to a reminder of the actual word, but once he had grasped what I was describing his face lit up and there was this huge joy at realizing what an interesting and wonderful thing eggs are.

If we are ever tempted to worry about what dementia might mean if it ever happened to us (something I am regularly guilty of), it is perhaps worth remembering that there are a million things about nature and this wonderful world just ready for us to rediscover all over again.

MAD MOMENT

Finally finishing the final final edit of my novel with the support and guidance of a real life – and very excellent – agent. And, to top it all, the manuscript being sent out this week to a round of editors/publishers. I feel like a proper novelist at last! (Please, please give me a publishing deal…)

MARVEL MOMENT

How my front garden has blossomed into this…

www.annedegruchy.co.uk image:  front garden full of flowers

© Anne de Gruchy

1

Making your Mark – Dementia and the Mental Capacity to Vote

Yesterday, I took my dad to vote.

So what, you say. But my dad has Alzheimers and, had I not told him about it, he would not have even registered that there was an election let alone that he could choose to vote in it. In fact, had I not made the effort when he first moved into a residential nursing home near me, he would not even appear on the electoral register here.

Me and my family are used to doing things for my dad. I receive and act on most of his mail and my sisters manage his finances and the rental of the house he used to live in. Someone else buys and prepares his food, puts out clean clothes, and shows him how to use the CD player. Someone else does his washing and makes his bed. Someone else gives him any medication he needs and takes him to appointments.

As one of dad’s Lasting Power of Attorneys I am also used to being involved in decision-making in dad’s best interests. He still has plenty of gumption and is well able to make his voice heard, he simply does not always understand the consequences of a particular course of action or have the awareness of what is possible in the first place.

So, dad has choices that we present to him and help him to put into practice, but those choices are totally dependent on us deciding to offer them to him in the first place. This is a big responsibility. It is especially a big responsibility when dad’s level of understanding and mental capacity is in question. It is an even bigger responsibility when, if I offer him the chance to vote, I know he will select the completely opposite political colour to myself in a potentially marginal seat!

I think you will have gathered by now that I am someone who takes my responsibilities seriously. I know that dad is a proud man who likes to do his civic duty. When I told him there was an election and asked if he’d like me to take him to vote his response was an immediate ‘yes’. He may not remember that I had telephoned him 20 minutes before when he said he would like to join me for my trip to the garden centre coffee shop and that he would be ready to go – he was sat in the lounge with a newly brewed pot of coffee when I arrived and insisted on drinking the whole pot before we set off – but he absolutely remembers which political party he has always voted for.

I thought about how much I should take into account dad’s understanding – or lack of it – of politics and the consequences of voting. So, for both this election and the local council elections before, I spent some time talking to him about his choices and what the different parties offered. We talked about the very different party politics in the area of South West London where I grew up, and his memories of voting in the past. He couldn’t remember the names of all the parties, but he knew the one he wanted to give his vote to.

So, with a slightly guilty conscience, I set off with dad for the polling station. My conscience was guilty for two reasons: firstly for the party I supported who were in a close two-horse race with the party dad wanted to vote for, and secondly because I even considered my own views at all when helping dad to exercise his right as a citizen. Why, just because he has dementia, should we write off every aspect of his life and understanding? How easy it would be to abuse the power I had and not to take him to vote at all. If I had wanted to, how easy it would have been to put the ‘X’ in the wrong box (dad is partially-sighted and cannot read the ballot paper or see to fill it in).

So, there I am, dad on my arm, completing forms to show that I have helped someone to vote, reading out to dad the list of candidates and who they represent, and carefully marking his choice on his behalf. I give him the folded ballot paper and guide his hand to the slot to post it in the box. We walk out into the sunshine and he says: ‘Thank you for helping me to vote.’ I feel like a million dollars.

Last night, half-asleep on the sofa in the wee small hours as the results came in, I held my breath as Broxtowe was declared. Dad’s candidate won, with a much reduced majority. I was gutted because I felt that we had a real chance of change here. My only consolation was that we were not the constituency that was returned with a 2 vote majority. That, and helping dad to exercise our hard-won democratic right to determine the kind of government we have.

MAD MOMENT

Nine nutty hours of gardening on behalf of my tenant – scratches, mud, and melting muscles!

MARVEL MOMENT

That Hung Parliament. Just not quite hung enough…

www.annedegruchy.co.uk image: dad and dog on a walk

Isla the dog voted to go for a walk instead…

© Anne de Gruchy

5

Edifying Editing Experiences

Well! It has been a while, hasn’t it, since I last ventured a blog post. Is working very very hard a good enough excuse?

By working I don’t just mean my new paid employment. This takes up the first part of my week and involves a job back in the field of mental health. This is my ‘real’ work – the thing that isn’t writing, the thing that actually pays the bills. It also makes me feel like a bona fide member of society again after two years out of paid work caring for my dad and making progress with my books.

But, why shouldn’t being a writer and a carer also make me feel like a bona fide member of society? This is a question I often ask myself, and I suppose it comes down to what I’m actually paid to do. Maybe if (oops, I mean ‘when’!) we sell my book I will actually feel that my writing counts.

When I typed that last sentence I originally put ‘if I sell my book’, then I had to delete the ‘I’ in favour of a ‘we’. This highlights rather well the difference that having an agent has made. (Did you know I now have an agent? Did you know it took me 17 years on-and-off to get there? I know – I’m beginning to be a bore on the subject!). Anyway, I now have the lovely Julia Silk from MBA Literary & Script Agents on my side. And that’s what it feels like – that there is genuinely someone there for me, who believes in my writing and is working alongside me to make the book the best it can be with the aim of finding a publishing home for it.

The whole process of actually signing up with an agency has been pretty nerve-wracking as well as exciting. Firstly there was the trip to London to meet with Julia, and the relief of getting on as well as I thought we would from our telephone conversations and email correspondence. We see eye to eye on my writing and the things that need to be done, and I respect her professional expertise. I knew we could build a relationship of trust. Then there was the scary nature of contracts and all things legal – it was with great relief that I joined the Society of Authors as an Associate Member and received advice from them. A lot of hand-holding was needed. Finally there was the scary nature of handing over the whole manuscript for in depth perusal and editing suggestions from someone else.

For me my books are, cliché that it is, a bit like children. I’ve moulded and refined them, had critiques and feedback, edited and refined again, then sent them out into the world in what I felt was the best shape I could muster. The characters can get stroppy and determined to have their way, but you love them nonetheless. When you get an agent, or indeed a publisher, you are suddenly in deeper waters – trusting your book to the close scrutiny of people who have expertise in the industry but who may not necessarily agree with you about what’s needed. They also have invaluable insights into what will actually sell.

And so it was that I awaited Julia’s suggestions with trepidation. She painstakingly went through the whole manuscript and not only lightened it by 4,000 words, but recommended that I took out a further 5,000. Descriptions that interrupted the flow of the story or messed up the tension were gone, gone, gone. I opened the document nervously and started reading.

What a relief it was to find that, on the whole, I agreed with her suggestions! Even where she had excised passages I felt a little precious about, I could still see why they needed to go. In the whole manuscript there was only one suggested deletion that I have asked to remain in!

Furthermore, the process of my own edit and cull of words felt positive and liberating, and I do feel we have a better book for it. Working one particular character into the plot earlier and enhancing her role also worked well. The manuscript has now winged its way back to Julia and yet again the ball is in her court.

So editing has proved an edifying experience. Now there is just the task of refining and agreeing changes and Julia developing and delivering her pitch to her selected publishers. That, and beginning the process all over again on a whole new book!

And, as for my dad, he is settled and happy at a care home close to me. Although his cancer is proving a little troublesome and his memory remains largely non-existent, we are going out together at least twice a week enjoying strolls with his dog (who is homed with a staff member), concerts, and plenty of meals out. Today we went out and bought him a sunhat. Of course he chose a classic and elegant design just like him!

MAD MOMENT

Setting off for a 10 mile walk over Beeley Moor with a forecast of rain, rain, rain! That, and the fact that there were 15 of us who risked it…

Image:  annedegruchy.co.uk - Beeley Moor

MARVEL MOMENT

Just being back in a job and enjoying it!

© Anne de Gruchy

7

Twitter: Love or Hate?

Twitter and tweeting has been a lot on my mind lately.

To be honest, I feel a bit of antipathy towards Twitter, and also to the whole alter-universe that is social media. Perhaps I am a product of my generation – someone who grew up with a life that was not constantly interrupted by the internet. Someone for whom mobile phones and personal computers of any kind did not exist until I was a mature(?!) fully-formed adult who felt able to choose or reject their intervention into my life. Or perhaps simply someone, like most generations, who does not feel fully at home with the new technology that is outpacing them.

For many years I ranted against social media. I felt uncomfortable about lack of privacy and control over who saw the things that I shared, and, if I’m honest, I felt that relationships formed online surely could not match up to the integrity and depth of relationships made face-to-face. I did not like the idea of being forced to adopt technology by a market that was playing for profit rather than genuine social cohesion.

Eventually, to the amazement of my friends, I caved in. My progress onto Facebook was largely fuelled by the fact that my lodger always knew what was going on locally and I didn’t. He would be off to some intriguing music gig or discussion group and I would be saying ‘how did you find out about that?’ and he’d say ‘Facebook’. It happened too often to be ignored. Now, Facebook is one of the main ways I find out about events and share pictures with family and friends. It also forms a useful reminder system for someone with a rubbish memory. ‘You have eight events coming up this week’ dear old FB will flash at me. Of course that is the other problem – there is so much going on that if you tick an interest in everything you are swamped with choice. It is not an incentive to peace or personal space.

Twitter, on the other hand, I find harder. I properly embraced many forms of social media a few years ago when I stopped paid employment to focus on my writing and caring for my father. I knew that if I was serious about getting my writing ‘out there’ I needed to engage with others through social media. Websites and blogs and Twitter accounts are some of the first things an agent or publisher will look at when considering taking on a writer and their work. I was surprised at how much I took to some of these media, but Twitter is still a bit of a mystery.

In some ways I get it and I love it. I get that I can engage with the thoughts and ideas of people from all backgrounds from all over the world. I get that news comes instantly, and responses follow like my cat trailing me when I have a plate of hot toast with melted butter on top. (There wouldn’t be melted butter on top for long if my cat had his way). I also get that people are not always who they say they are, and that a certain amount of caution and intuitive cynicism needs to be exercised. I get that the whole Twittersphere is incestuous in the ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ culture – tweet me and I’ll tweet you, like my stuff and I’ll like back – which is what I find mind-numbingly difficult. It doesn’t feel ethical and it doesn’t encourage people to think independently and have confidence in their own views.

What has taken me longer to understand is that I need, as my son pointed out to me, to try to properly engage in conversations and interactions – just as if I was in a room with someone. This in itself sounds promising, because I am a confident person who loves chatting to people and learning from them. However the Twittersphere is a big place and interractions and Tweets come and go in a nanosecond. Some lead onwards and others crash and burn or fizzle out slowly while no one watches. To do it properly, you see, takes time. And regular contact. Daily contact, in fact, and many minutes or even hours.

This scares me! The bottom line is that what scares me more is that I sometimes get drawn into it. I wake up and switch on my phone and an hour later I am still pinging around the internet somewhere. I absolutely KNOW that I have better things to do with my time and I’m still out there, ineffectively ‘liking’ and ‘retweeting’ things.

Chat times I understand more. There are ones around mental health, caring and dementia that give me a chance to interact with the same people regularly and which genuinely provide a great network for support and advice. But the individual ‘pings’ – those little blasts that make up a huge great skyscape full of the litter-dust of people’s reactions – they sometimes cloud the original trigger so totally that it quickly spirals into an infinite round of navel-gazing.

And what of Love or Hate? In his prayer, St Francis of Assisi asked that ‘where there is hatred, let me sow love’. What is difficult about tweeting is that we don’t know where the seeds of our thinking will fall. Our intention may be good (or bad), but like the parable in the Bible we simply don’t know the kind of ground that will be receiving them.

I suppose that ultimately social media reflects the society we live in – and indeed forms part of that society. Good intentions can accidentally (or incidentally) lead to melt-down, but, on the other hand, hate-filled tirades can lead to an outpouring of public support and love. The bottom line, though, is that I would rather be walking by the river than checking my phone…

MAD MOMENT

Going for that high hill Peak District walk with my friend despite the weather forecast for rain all day.

MARVEL MOMENT

Despite the weather forecast for rain all day, driving to said walk in rain, putting our boots on in rain, driving home in rain, but for 5 hours of walking, not a drop!!!

© Anne de Gruchy