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Finding my ‘Few Concerns’

As those of you who follow my blog will be aware, I have recently been deeply involved in studying and facilitating workshops on simplicity – a theme that evolved because of the need to simplify my own life both materially and with regard to my commitments. The irony of the whole process has been the discovery of quite how complex ‘simplicity’ is!

Amidst all my research and reading, one of the pieces that stood out for me is the very popular excerpt from Thomas Kelly’s work as quoted in Quaker Faith & Practice:

I wish I might emphasise how a life becomes simplified when dominated by faithfulness to a few concerns. Too many of us have too many irons in the fire. We get distracted by the intellectual claim to our interest in a thousand and one good things, and before we know it we are pulled and hauled breathlessly along by an over-burdened programme of good committees and good undertakings. I am persuaded that this fevered life of church workers is not wholesome. Undertakings get plastered on from the outside because we can’t turn down a friend. Acceptance of service on a weighty committee should really depend upon an answering imperative within us, not merely upon a rational calculation of the factors involved. The concern-orientated life is ordered and organised from within. And we learn to say No as well as Yes by attending to the guidance of inner responsibility. Quaker simplicity needs to be expressed not merely in dress and architecture and height of tombstones but also in the structure of a relatively simplified and co-ordinated life-programme of social responsibilities.

Thomas R Kelly, 1941
Quaker Faith & Practice – Chapter 20: 20.36

So recently I have been thinking about this and trying to discern what the ‘few concerns’ are that I, myself, should be faithful to.

This is easier said than done. At the moment there are many strands taking up my time and attention and each one feels ‘right’ and important, yet I know I cannot sustain them all for much longer. For quite a while now I have felt the need to ‘hold’ these things until the time when it becomes clear which ones I should move forward with and which ones will drop away.

In no particular order, some of the key pieces of my life at the moment are:

• My paid employment. My job working with the local authority in a team responsible for implementing the Mental Capacity Act provision on Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards is important to me. I am part of a friendly team, and when I am in paid work I feel fulfilled and part of society. Paid work and its routine also tends to have a beneficial impact on my mental health. This is a temporary post, so I need to make decisions about what to do when it comes to an end next April.

• My writing. Always a mix of pleasure and discipline, I am well into writing my fourth novel with a lovely agent trying to find a home for my third one. Normally I do not try to combine full-on novel writing and a job, but with someone believing in me and championing my work, now is not the time to lose my focus.

• My family. My father continues to have a good slice of my time and attention as he settles into life in residential care. An unexpected knock-on effect of him moving close to me is the ‘Anne de Gruchy Bed and Breakfast Service for Relatives’ for people who want to visit my dad! It is lovely to see my family so often, but does not help with earmarking time to write or work. Amidst all this, I am trying to maintain the lovely relationship I have with my son.

• My friends. These are getting rather squeezed out at the moment – except for the ones who I land on for a week to use them as a base for a ‘writing retreat’! Most of my friends are long-standing and we are used to flurries of contact with some longer gaps when other commitments come to the fore. It is gold-dust to have such friends in my life. Local friends probably think I have just hibernated for the winter…

• My partner/boyfriend (cue argument re how to refer to your ‘other half’ when you are 57 and definitely no longer a ‘girl’!). It is lovely to have love and companionship come my way unexpectedly at this stage in my life, but I need to give it attention to flourish and there is that tricky problem of distance…

• Community. I love where I live. I want to contribute. I don’t have time to do this but could choose to work/write less and contribute more. And what if a move of area becomes appropriate because of the new relationship? Do I feel able to risk uprooting and starting all over again? Ditto for my spiritual life and connections with the Quaker community.

You see my dilemma! Part of me feels excited by all the possibilities, and a lot depends on whether I can get a publishing deal. In the meantime I am trying to save money against a possible gap in employment and looking forward to the opportunities that the New Year will bring. I will be running some more Simplicity sessions in 2018 and hope to introduce some creative exercises to aid discernment. I am hoping to listen to my own advice!

The one thing that is certain is that I need this list to be shorter and more focused by the middle of next year. Please do remind me if I haven’t shown progress by then, and please do share your own stories and ideas about the ‘few concerns’ that speak to you in your own life.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Christmas wreath

MAD MOMENT

Well – I have just dyed my hair and it now has bright lilac and purple streaks! Will I ever learn?

MARVEL MOMENT

My ‘new’ man is rapidly becoming my ‘old’ man – still together and going good!

© Anne de Gruchy

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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

2

At a Writing Crossroads

When I first decided to write on this topic I was job-less, had no potential take-up for my novel, and was juggling the risks of continuing as self-employed and penniless against returning to work and the potential of stress-city and the abandonment – or at least dilution – of my getting-published dreams. However, life is weird and wonderful and a week later I found myself in possession of a job offer and that precious and rare thing: potential agent-representation for my book.

The job-offer alone has an element of surreality. The original closing date was several months ago and the relevant department was very hard to contact when I tried to find further information. I liked the sound of the job, but the delays made it seem an unlikely option and, when I was finally invited to interview, I was so unwell on the day that I nearly cancelled. The omens did not feel good. Neither did the idea of the ‘test’ that formed part of the interview.

But life has a habit of surprising me at the moment. By filling myself with half of my medicine cabinet I managed to get through the interview without killing everyone else off, and the eye that was red and swollen as a result of infected conjunctivitis managed to stay roughly in focus. Better still, the three people who interviewed me were all lovely, with a great attitude towards the work involved, and I immediately felt that it would be good to work with them. Cue an uncomfortable weekend while I awaited the result, but on the Monday afternoon, despite an intermittent phone signal up on the moor above Two Dales, I got the call that told me I had been successful.

The next day, whilst immersed in DBS forms and ‘pre-employment’ Occupational Health questionnaires, an email pinged into my inbox from the agent who had previously requested to read the whole manuscript of my book. Now for those of you who are not writerly types a lesson in book-selling etiquette might be appropriate. There are several ‘rules’ involved:

1. Publishers, especially big ones, don’t like to do the leg-work of sifting through zillions of submissions and prefer to only look at books that have been suggested by an agent, who will hopefully have done the sifting for them.
2. Trying to get an agent also involves a submissions process, and getting one is like finding gold-dust in the River Trent.
3. Nowadays you are expected to have a certain level of online presence and interaction to show you can engage with an audience, even if you don’t intend to publish your work yourself.
4. God-forbid that you try self-publication if your aspirations are remotely literary – if it doesn’t fit a genre where people might take a punt on an unknown author (crime, romance, et al) then sales are also as unlikely as finding gold-dust in the River Trent.
5. If an agent replies with anything more than complete silence or a one-line ‘this is not for us’ email, then that means you are generally going in the right direction.
6. If an agent asks for the whole manuscript (having seen a synopsis and so many thousand words) then that is cause for a minor heart attack – or at least angina – and a long breath-holding wait while they find time to read it and let you know if they are willing to represent you.

Like the wait for the job interview, it had taken a while for the agent to un-bury herself from the huge pile of manuscripts that are an agent’s lot and finally get to mine. And, given the delay, her email simply asked if I still wanted her to look at my work. Did I still want her to look at my work? Of course I did! Cue another uncomfortable wait until ‘the end of the week’ when she’d promised to get back to me. And, true to her word, she did.

The email pinged in. The agent’s name pinged up. I waited to read the ‘I’m sorry…’ bit, but instead there was ‘I think this is a wonderful book and would love to talk to you about representation.’ Wow! Now, a few days on, we have talked at length on the telephone and a client agreement has wended its way for my perusal. We seem to get on well and to be on the same wavelength, and I am thrilled to find someone whose approach and experience I can trust and who believes in my work.

So, once I settle down after the shock, I have to regroup and apply myself to two parallel paths of part-time employed work and writing. The crossroads seem to have dissolved and I have ended up on a dual-carriageway instead!

MAD MOMENT…

Doing a Model Railway day at a local church hall with dad. He and the under fives were at one in their interest and wonderment. It felt completely surreal – like I’d moved back in time and we’d swapped parent and child roles.

MARVEL MOMENT…

Ditto, above! Plus dad’s enjoyment of his birthday treats and cake – 92 years young!

© Anne de Gruchy

annedegruchy.co.uk image: stone doorway with view of woods
Where I was when I heard I got the job! Gateway to new opportunities?

2

Juggling Jobs, Caring and Mental Health

The day before I sat down to write this I was offered a new job.

It is an interesting and worthwhile job working with lovely people, but it also heralds a return to my multiple juggling act – dad, and work, and managing my mental health.

It was a big decision to go back to paid employment, and motivated by several things. Firstly, there was the fact that so far I have had no success in publishing my writing (not for money, anyway) and I need to consider my finances and status as self-employed. Secondly, I have got to that stage where I was beginning to miss work – the stage where I am itching for routine, and doing things as part of a team, and contributing something that society sees as worthwhile. Thirdly, my year and a half out of formal employment was mainly to provide extra time and resilience to support my dad. Of course his needs have not gone away – in fact they have increased and only a few weeks ago I had to rush down to Dorset to troubleshoot a crisis – but I have discovered that not being in work has not decreased the stress of dealing with his needs.

Dad and work have always been a juggling act. It would not be such a problem if he lived close-by – then I would be able to get him to a hospital appointment and be back in work the next day instead of losing an extra two days in travel and needing to stay on in case he had an adverse reaction to his treatment. But dad is not close-by and the biggest dilemma comes when there is fire-fighting to do. Like a few weeks ago when I went down to support him after he was targeted by conmen – there was the phone call from his bank to alert me followed by a full seven hours of ringing round and organizing things: a friend to be with him and stop overnight until I could get there, the police to report the crime and check on the house, a locksmith to change the locks, the insurance company, the care agency who look after him, my sisters.

‘What would have happened if I had been at work?’ I asked myself.

In a previous job I had to make choices about whether to take phone calls from dad or the care agency – if they rang I tried to pick up or I returned the call in my lunch break. I ended up with no lunch breaks as well as very little annual leave. I also ended up with high stress levels. Since then I have really examined how I choose to respond to dad’s needs. I have also had lots of extra support from my lovely sisters who both live abroad. Now, one of them is the main point of contact for the care agency and the other is taking over dad’s finances in addition to the other tasks she does. This is no mean feat, especially when you live in Australia – companies are not always keen to send correspondence thousands of miles even if you are named on a Power of Attorney.

So our family muddles on and dad continues to want to live at home. I have talked with my sisters and know that I will simply need to turn my phone off when I am at work if I am to have a chance to succeed in my new job and give it the full attention it deserves. If dad or the care agency cannot get hold of me they will have to find someone else. As someone recently pointed out to me, my father is an adult too – albeit one with a misbehaving brain – and his choice to remain at home has consequences he will need to live with. Maybe at some point the balance will tip and his health or safety will demand that he has residential or live-in care, both options which we have explored on his behalf.

In the end I feel that the decision about returning to work was taken from my hands. I was so intent on worrying about when and whether dad would have the next crisis and if I should just continue trying to manage without a job that I forgot that serendipity – or perhaps God – has a hand in things. It went like this: I got despondent following a book-rejection; I looked in the job listings with no real intent to apply at this stage; the job I have been offered just stuck in my brain and I woke one morning just knowing I needed to apply; the application went in at 2.30am and the rest is history.

Did I do the right thing? This was a question I kept asking myself. But when I was waiting to hear whether I had got an interview I was on tenterhooks and I knew then that I really wanted the post. It just seemed to fit. God, or at least the NHS, obviously thought so too!

MAD MOMENT…

My cat being determined to sit on ME while I conducted an interview and tried to take notes as part of my Simplicity research. My interviewee had lap and attention ready, but cats just know whose is the most inconvenient lap to choose!

MARVEL MOMENT…

I was early for my job interview so I did a twenty-minute meditation sitting in my car in the car park. The car park was surprisingly peaceful and surrounded by greenery. I felt deeply relaxed as I went in for the interview. Will definitely be trying that again if I ever need another job!

© Anne de Gruchy