Fifty Shades of Power – the responsibility of the writer.

I read 50 Shades of Grey a while ago to see what all the hype was about. As a writer I was disappointed, finding it very poorly written, but what I did find interesting was how popular the subject matter was. Listening to all the debates about it on television and radio, reading about it in newspapers and magazines, what they seemed to be saying was that the book was most popular with financially successful, upwardly mobile, unmarried 30-somethings. Apparently, being successful and having complete control of your life seems to generate fantasies of relinquishing control of your body over to a man who then has carte-blanche to abuse you. Nothing wrong in that, we all have fantasies. The problem starts to occur when we put them into reality.

I’m old enough to have grown up during a time when women had no power or at best it was limited. When women had to give up work when they got married, when marital- and date-rapes weren’t offences, when all boys were given extra marks before they started the 11+ so that more of them were ensured a place at grammar school, when wives couldn’t buy anything on HP without their husband’s signature, or borrow money from the bank, or sometimes even have their own bank accounts. The freedoms that women enjoy today were hard-won and over a long period of time. So how can young people really understand the value of what they have and take for granted, because they’ve had it so relatively easy?

It is hard work being responsible for yourself, for every decision you make, for every aspect of your life. I know, I’ve done for the last 40+ years and being a single parent I also had the responsibility of three other lives as well. But the last thing I would fantasize about is giving away my power to anyone because I’ve had to fight every step of the way to get it and keep it. Even now, when I thought all the battles had been fought and won. Because the pendulum swings back and apathy and fantasies today let power slip out the door tomorrow when no-one’s looking. Already we have a judge blaming young girls for their own rapes because they drank too much. Sound familiar to anyone over 30?

So what do writers have to do with all this? Do they have the responsibility of being the mouthpiece of society? Of a generation? I suppose that depends on what kind of writer you are/want to be, but then that kind of responsibility is assumed by the individual; it’s not God-given. I believe that as writers our responsibility is to the truth of what we’re writing, however uncomfortable that might be for some readers. After all, they still have the power to close the book if they don’t like it. It’s not our job to police society’s morals, it’s our job to hold a mirror up to them and present their truth even when writing about how much we dislike them. Despite all my personal views and fears about women today, as a writer I have to put them aside if I am to portray contemporary society because I believe the only responsibility the writer has beyond her/himself is to the reader.

E L James has tapped into a lucrative market and the publicity machine is doing the rest. The fact so many people want to ban the film, or persuade people not to go to see it, is only fuelling the hype. However, I don’t believe in censorship unless it involves unwilling and/or illegal participation, like child pornography, and looking back through history I see that it only does society ill when you start banning ideas.

Writers are by nature and inclination creative creatures so by definition anything and everything is possible. I may not like 50 Shades of Grey, I may be envious of its success and deplore standards readers are willing to accept, I may despair of young women dreaming that being abused is erotic, but I defend everyone’s right to think, read, watch and believe what they want as long as they don’t interfere with anyone else’s rights to do the same and all actions undertaken are within the law and between consenting adults.

With all the wonders of social media writers can reach millions more people than they ever envisaged possible twenty or thirty years ago. Never have we had so much power but with all power comes responsibility and I mourn the fact that today that seems to be eroding, that subject matter and celebrity seems to over-ride good writing and it is as much an indictment of our society as the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey.

Identity and Truth

Seneca writes:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long by Maria Popova

I recently embarked on a memoir writing course and have been trawling through the various stages of my life, the events that took place and the hold they have over me. On paper my life looks rich in source material—plenty of births, deaths, significant changes, angst, loss etc—but what does it all add up to in terms of Seneca’s definition? Have all the failed relationships, mistakes, disruptions, lack of control, blind alleys, nervous breakdowns and self-sabotaging been a waste? I don’t think so. They have forged me into who I am and the writer in me uses these experiences to inform my work, create ‘real’ characters and situations, empathize with them and hopefully enable readers to understand their motivations and flaws.

David Foster Wallace puts it perfectly in: The Nature of the Fun and Why Writers Write:

“Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”

So what is my Truth? And what does it have to do with identity?

When we create characters we need them to be identifiably different from the others and use various techniques to do this—‘voice’, what they say, what they do, what is said about them, what they wear, what they carry and so on. We create a back story for them, invent life events, family members, mannerisms, education, likes and dislikes, music preferences etc, anything that will fix them in our minds so that we can psychologically motivate them. Most of that stuff never appears in our stories but we need it to create a ‘truth’ for the character. By providing an identity and personality for them they become real to us. We know them intimately, they speak to us, take us in directions we didn’t think we’d go, fall in love with unsuitable people and start to have a life of their beyond the pages.

When I was creating the character of Grace in my first novel I was drawing on an event that had stuck in my mind when my children were small. A two-year-old boy was abducted on the island of Kos when in the care of his grandmother and I wondered how the child’s mother could ever forgive her own mother. This ‘what if’ became the starting point for the story and the character of Grace was created through my own experiences; she was about the same age as me, had a difficult relationship with her daughter and had mental health problems. The similarities ended there but were a springboard for other ideas until Grace lived with me and even slept with me at night. Drawing on deeply personal experiences I can vouch for the ‘truth’ of her, but she isn’t me; I am me.

Joseph Conrad: Writing and the Role of the Artist (1897) says:

 “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”

Looking at my life experiences it may seem as if I have lived a life of wasted opportunities but in Seneca’s terms, writing is a way of me having a long life because I now know “how to use it”.

Can’t buy me love

It’s New Year’s Eve and thoughts automatically turn to a review of the past year and what has been achieved. On the writing front I’ve been really busy and had several poems and a short story published. My second novel, which is still to place, has been critiqued and I’ve started a third. I’ve been actively sending my work out, shrugging off any rejections and feel a lot more grounded in self-belief. There will always be areas I can improve but I’m pleased with my progress and the fact I don’t let criticism destroy me anymore.

My home life keeps me on my toes and my health, apart from a dodgy hip, is probably the best it’s been for years. I’ve been able to have more work done on the house to make it warm this winter and have replaced a couple of old settees to enhance my comfort. It’s all been good. So what’s missing?

When I worked in Nepal and on my travels in developing countries I was always impressed by the incredibly happy outlook of people who had nothing. They never worried about whether their clothes matched some fashion dictate, or whether their body shapes were in vogue. They didn’t seem to agonize over whether their partner loved them or if they were worthy of love. I suppose when you are stripped to basics and survival is your main concern, then those other things are luxuries you can’t afford. Now I’ve got a new career going, have a home I can be safe, warm and comfortable in, I’ve no more excuses; it’s time to look at the area of my life I do any displacement activity to avoid addressing. Love.

Those who have followed my blogs know that I haven’t been particularly successful in that area and that the way I deal with being unsuccessful is to either bash away with my head, or run away. The latter is easiest. I’ll take lots of risks with my body but am a real wuss when it comes to my heart. I’d rather give up desire than risk rejection so have settled into a very pleasant ‘safe’ existence where I can and do anything I want without having to explain myself or make compromises. It always seemed a win/win situation to me. And yet…

Lately the old yearning has surfaced, that feeling of desire for intimate communication between bodies and souls, where connections are forged that can take me to the realms of the divine. The heat and static on skin that electifies the slightest touch and can take me to another dimension. The meeting of minds that seems to expand intellect yet at the same time makes space for the trivial minutae of life, recognizing it’s implicit importance in the great scheme of things. There is so much more than I am currently experiencing. It may be blasphemous, but for me meditation can only provide so much. I’m having a human experience that is enhanced by contact with Spirit but perhaps it’s another human being who can be a more successful channel to that contact. And maybe that’s what I’m missing.

I remember reading Milton’s Paradise Lost at university and loving his portayal of Satan and Adam. His Adam is not the gullible soul sometimes portayed in anti-feminist religious writings. He knows what Eve has done is wrong but his love for her is so strong that he chooses to follow Eve and be damned with her rather than live in Eden without her. I’m not good at deferred gratification so I would choose like Adam for the ‘now’ of Eve rather than the ‘later’ of what life might be like without her. Love is one of our strongest motivating emotions and to live without it is limiting. With 2014 approaching it’s time for resolutions so I’m send out to the Universe my desire to be open in mind and heart to all opportunities and I’ll see where that takes me. Wherever it is, it’ll be an exciting journey, with or without a companion.

 

Birthdays

Today is my ex-husband’s birthday; he would have been 64. I keep a daily journal and have been remembering him, remembering the people we were, our relationship, what went wrong, what went right and what I learned along the way.

I was 17 when we met. I was going out with his cousin and was introduced to him at a disco. He was shorter than his cousin and looked much younger and I partonized him quite a bit. When he asked me to dance I obliged, feeling I was doing him a favour. However, when we got onto the dance floor and I saw how good he was, I viewed him differently. We were married when I was 19, after our engagement had been broken off for a while when I found out he’d been sleeping one my friends. That kind of set the tone for the whole of our relationship.

We broke up for a while when my first child was less than 2 years old but got back together again amidst all sorts of promises. Then, when I was 5 months pregnant with our second child he was promoted and started working away from home. I physically became a single parent although emotionally I’d felt one for a long time. The ineveitable happened and he found someone else, we divorced and went our different ways. But we had children together and that changes everything. He was a man driven by principles, but aware of his shortcomings, was active within the Labour Party and a shop steward. We shared political beliefs but differed on how to express them. However, when it came to our children we made a pact to always do what we felt was best for them, not us, and agreed never to rubbish the other in front of them. We kept our bargain, difficult as it was at times.

Over the years I grew to love and respect him in new ways. He never reneged on any child maintenance payments, was always there at the end of a phone to talk to about the children, and took them at holiday times to give me a rest. His work took him all over the world for months at a time but he kept in touch and when his boys were born our family extended. Things that had driven me crazy during our marriage – “No wife of mine is going to work in a bar”, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, bonnie lass”, and “If you want to go out, I’ll take youi” –  I realized were just his way of trying to ‘be a man’ in the culture of the day. His sense of duty and resposibility were later the very things I valued him for when around me my friends’ ex-husbands were petty and vindictive during and after their divorces.

Every Mothers’ Day I received a huge bouquet of flowers to thank me for our children and that continued for another 30 years after our divorce, right up until his death. He cheered me on while I struggled to get my first and post grad degrees  and always called to see how I was getting on, particularly after my diagnosis of MG. However, he himself fell ill from working with asbestos and other substances. His illness wore him out and his family begged him to retire but true to his principles and work ethics, he carried on working until the end. He  also had another reason for carrying on – if he died ‘in work’ then his widow got a lot more from his work insurance.

I wrote a poem just before his funeral and want to share it with you. He was never completely comfortable with ‘strong’ women and always found it difficult to express his emotions, so we were completely incompatible as lovers/spouses. But he was always there, in the background, offering support wherever he could, and I miss him.

 

The Light 

 

The light has gone out early.

I thought I would have gone

 

first, but here I am

 

sitting in the dark, remembering.

 

 

 

He blew into me one day

 

like he was the edge of the wind

 

bringing new ideas

 

from the low rattle of a storm.

 

 

 

His laughter warmed me, like a room

 

filled with sunshine, but too soon

 

it disappeared,

 

blown out with the light.

 

I shiver in the dark.

 

 

 

Intuition and Perception

As a writer as well as a woman I often rely upon intuiton to guide me. Not often enough, however, because sometimes when I ignore it, I only have to return to it later when it has proven to be correct. But what, exactly, is it?

I came across an article on Brain Pickings online newsletter entitled “How Our Minds Mislead Us: The Marvels and Flaws of Intuition. In it Daniel Kahneman looks at how the brain works and he ascertains that it learns more by making mistakes than by getting everything right. No surprises there. He then goes on to assert that:

There is no sharp line between intuition and perception. … Perception is predictive. . . . If you want to understand intuition, it is very useful to understand perception, because so many of the rules that apply to perception apply as well to intuitive thinking. Intuitive thinking is quite different from perception. Intuitive thinking has language. Intuitive thinking has a lot of word knowledge organized in different ways more than mere perception. But some very basic characteristics [of] perception are extended almost directly to intuitive thinking.”

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow

I don’t know about you but he lost me at the word knowledge bit. The article is very academic, as you’d expect from a Nobel prize winning psychologist, and I’m sure, since his book has been rated one of the best psychology books of 2012, that it’s well researched and informative. However, for me the distinction between intuition and perception is to do with something that is integral and something that is learned.

Migrating birds don’t seem to have ‘word language’, nor turtles hatching out of eggs and making straight for the sea, or salmon swimming upstream in the rivers of their birth. By all accounts they have a signal inside them that provides instruction and direction that isn’t imparted by anyone else, they’re born with it. I know this kind of intuition is different from what Kahneman was talking about in his ‘intuitive thinking’, but it’s easier for me to understand how my body/mind can tell me something is wrong before it happens if I think about turtles. It’s all about survival.

Perception, on the other hand, seems more to do with value judgements or ways of looking at something. In an art class I attended there was a huge bowl on the centre of the table in the middle of the room, filled with flowers. Each sketch from the students was different, based on their unique styles, artistic temperament and also their positions around the table. For me, perception is like that. We each see something differently based on our past experiences, expectations, and knowledge/understanding. So how does this affect my writing?

When I write poetry I first rely on my ‘intuitive inner voice’ to help me feel the words, decide on line endings, hear the cadences and movement of the poems. I then use my ‘critical inner voice/friend’ to unpick the ideas, check them against what I know/have read/learnt/want to achieve to help me decide what needs to be changed. My ‘intuition’ gets me started, my ‘critical friend’ helps me to review and refine until I’m happy with the results. When someone reads my poems they may like or dislike them but not really know why, which is probably an intuitive response, whereas those who like or dislike and can give reasons are proabably using perception.

As Kahneman says, they’re both linked and to know one we need to understand the other. I love the intelligence, vocabulary and passion of people like him, and I do try to read academic works. However, for my purpose here I like the simpler analogies of turtles, salmon or swallows.

 

Mothers

It’s my mam’s birthday today and she would have been 85. Already I am older than she was when she died and it’s quite a sobering thought. All that life left unlived, all those things she never got to do, people she never met. She and I had a difficult relationship that wasn’t softened by us both being stubborn. But in the later years, after I had my own children, we talked a lot more and I discovered a lot of things that then made sense to me about how she was and why she did the things she did. Which is probably why there’s at least one character in my novels who has mother/daughter problems.

The middle child of three girls my mother always felt unloved. The eldest girl got to leave home and work in London, whereas mam had to stay at home and help around the house. The youngest girl always got new clothes because the hand-me-downs from the eldest were worn out by the time they were to be passed on to her. My mam wanted to go to secretarial college but there was no money to send her; by the time her younger sister wanted to go, there was enough money because both my mam and the elder sister were married and no longer living at home. And what really hurt was that the younger sister never worked or used the secretarial skills she’d learnt whereas my mam had to take cleaning and factory jobs after she was married because she wasn’t qualified to do anything else. No wonder she pushed me so hard.

Emotionally there were lots of scars too. She was never told about babies or how you got them until her wedding night. She fell pregnant with me and dind’t know the first thing about what to expect or what was happening to her body. After a very long labour in hospital I was delivered by forceps, taken away and put in isolation. She never held or even saw me till I was brought back to her almost 48 hours later. She thought I had died, despite everyone’s reassurances, and when she saw me with my cut eye, pointy head and purple wizened body that resembled a skinned rabbit, she was sure some unmarried mother had given birth to me; her beautiful chubby girl with blonde curls was definitely dead, or stolen. And to top it all, my overpossessive paternal grandmother registered my birth and gave me the name of Christine, not Julie as my mam had wanted. No wonder it was difficult for her to bond with me or know how to raise me. She did the best she could and I’m grateful for everything she taught me, but I have issues. Residues of childhood that appear on the edges of my self-confidence can sometimes, without warning, incapacitate me.

Growing up I had the selective memory of any child. I remembered the smacks, rejections and cruel remarks, unable to see the fact I having clothes on my back and food to eat were signs of being loved. My mother was unable to ever say sorry and after she died I found a letter she’d written to my father apologizing for not being able to say ‘I love you’ but assuring him that she did. The story of my birth and how I was the ugliest child she’d ever seen was a well-worn family ‘joke’ that I embraced, believing this was the reason I was unloveable. Needless to say that has had disastrous repercussions all my life. Even today, I’m still unable to see in the mirror what other people see but know my worth as a person goes much deeper than how I look.

When she was dying in hospital from kidney failure I had a few weeks to get rid of my abrasiveness and the past disappeared for both of us. At last we were able to express what we really felt and to make amends. I remember one time I was massaging her feet and moistening her mouth, trying to make her comfortable. My son was in the room and and later he told me that he was very moved by the way she looked at me, with unmistakeable love in her eyes, as if in that moment nothing and no-one existed but me.

I have a younger brother who I believed right up till mam was ill that was loved more than me. He was a perfect child – didn’t cry, did as he was told, didn’t answer back and was cuddly. It took me till we had to organize rotas for hospital visits that I finally acknowledged that we were loved equally but differently. We also had a lot in common. Because we moved round a lot – I went to 8 different schools – we both have control issues. We don’t like other people’s rules but where I would bully everyone into playing my rules, he’d withdraw and play by himself.

It has taken a lot of time to re-love my brother. I used to love him when he was born, but my paternal grandmother’s way of punishing me was to tell me she didn’t love me, she loved him because he wasn’t naughty like me. Yet she, too, was another mother, a victim of her times. Unable to loosen the stranglehold on my father, her precious only child she’d given birth to late in life 3 months early and kept alive with an eyedropper when he was less than 2lbs in weight, she caused problems for him all his life with her suffocating love.

I read a blog yesterday questioning the idea that being a mother was the most important job in the world. It was mainly raging against the statement because it excluded fathers and other care givers and queried the semantics of what is a mother anyway – biology, situation or emotional connection? And whether their jobs are more important than surgeons who save lives or politicians who have the power to annihilate the human race. It was very interesting and I don’t discount the intellectual arguments it posited. However, when I look at my girls and see the wonderful jobs they are doing raising their children and compare that to how I raised mine and how I was raised, I believe that mothers, good, bad or indifferent, impact on their children’s lives in ways that differentiate them from other care givers. Maybe it’s the umbilical cord, I don’t know, but rejection by my mother hurt much more than by my father who was equally guilty of not having read child pyschology. So today I’m celebrating mothers everywhere, and mine in particular, for the amazing jobs they do despite all the odds.

One of my favourite books is The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. I leave you with a quote that resonates with me and connects me to all the people in the world who are doing the best they can, especially in the many areas of conflict we see on our tv screens.
It doesn’t interest me where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after a night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children

Revenge

My new novel is about revenge and how betrayals and broken dreams can turn someone into a killer. I’ve been watching a lot of crime programmes here in Holland on the ID Channel and have been noting how many of the murders have been motivated by revenge. One particularly horrific case was about a mother who killed all four of her children to get back at the husband who dumped her. That shocked me much more than all the men who killed their wives because they either thought, or they were, cheating on them. Maybe I have low expectations of men and believe them much more capable of heinous acts than women, which says a lot about my conditioning. Women are expected to be the caring, nurturing partner, the men the hunter-gatherers, so when a woman commits a murder she is judged much more harshly than a male counterpart.

Myra Hindley is a case in point. There have been men who have committed the same sort of acts that she did but she’s remembered because a) she’s a woman b) because as a woman she was able to lure the kids to their deaths c) she was the first female serial killer to be ‘discovered’ and was the subject of so much media attention. Obviously she wasn’t motivated by revenge and what she did doesn’t bear thinking about. But she shocked us into accepting that women are capable of committing those kinds of crimes.

Revenge is an act usually conducted after some time stewing over jealousies. It is cold and calculated but I wonder what, once the act is committed, what the revenger feels. I’ve had spats with people and secretly wished them ill. I’ve never acted on my feelings except when something bad happened to them I had a smug sense of ‘Serves you right’. But that feeling is short-lived and I can never hold onto that smugness for very long. Feelings of revenge that lead someone to murder are obviously much more powerful and I wonder whether once the act has been committed whether there’s any real satisfaction at all. So much time and energy has been invested in planning and executing the revenge, there’s a focus and purpose that drives people forward, so when that is no longer there, do they feel deflated rather than elated? I don’t know the answer to that and for my character in the novel I’ll have to use my imagination.

Earlier this year I worked collaboratively with my son, Elliot Nichol. He’s a fine art photographer living in Malta and a fine art exhibition in St Julian’s Bay. I used the images from the exhibition and wrote poems to accompany them that were on a Greek myth theme, which we then published in a book. (See http://www.elliotnicholphotography.com.) Here are two of them. The first is about Amphitrite who was Poseidon’s wife. Being a king he had lots of consorts and she had to put up with that.

Amphitrite’s Pool

Wild fruit of the seas,
the wash of tides covet her beauty.
In the lift and creak of the ocean
her power is beyond appearances
beyond meaning.

Here in the weft and weave
of water she waits
splinters of coral in her eyes,
stabbing pain of longing
for the ecstasy of being his.

She understands the language of the sea;
flutes of currents through shipwrecks,
folding dark echoing against rocks
clotted with smells of seaweed
and sea-bleached sand.

Yet the weeds of her mind are cruel;
incandescent imaginings
scurry like crabs across trust,
unfurl an anger brittle as bone.
She threads storms to make a blanket,

catches the first breath of deceit.

The second poem is about Medea who gave a poisoned wedding dress to her lover’s bride; it burst into flames and killed her. She also killed all her children to get back at him.

Medea’s Revenge

The love you gave me
blisters my skin with lies.
You have betrayed me.

The gown I gave her
incinerates like passion—
she will not have you.

The children I bore you
scorch my eyes with memories.
Killing is easy