Category Archives: Tracing the Scenic Route

2019

What, so I only make end-of-year posts now? Possibly. As a glance at the Gig Archive will show, it has been a busy year. Fortunately it has been a kinder year than 2018, bringing no further losses, and a far more professionally satisfying year. There’s still a lot going on in the headspace, but the rough times in therapy aren’t something I’m ready to write about yet. Maybe later. Maybe never.

I’m not doing the decade round-up because there are too many things I’m angry about from this decade and I’m not going to post about things as if I’d made my peace with them when I haven’t. Besides, I have a theory that decades don’t actually change when you reach the -0 year or even the -1 year, they take until about -4 or -5 to establish their own identities. So I might do that round-up in 2025. Or I might wait until 2022 and look at how things have gone in the decade since the world ended. Either way, I’m not doing it just now.

As for the 2019 round-up… well, why not? It has been a decent year. So here’s what I can remember:

Writing: This feels like the least active aspect of my career this year, though when I stop and think about it I’ve done a fair amount. I wrote two more shows for EAS – Timesync, which was an adaptation of The Tempest mixing Shakespeare’s language with mine, and Eggshells, a huge piece of choral storytelling about the North Berwick witch trials. Given how difficult it is to find opportunities to write for large casts of adults these days, I feel very fortunate to have had this chance, and I love finding ways to challenge actors at different stages of their development. I also started playing around with the idea of adapting Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach’s Lyric Novella and tried a bit of it out at In Motion Theatre’s Write Lines event. I’m undecided as to whether I’ll adapt the rest – mostly because I feel I should ease up on the genderfuck protagonists before I write myself into a rut – but I might.

I keep thinking that I haven’t been writing much fiction this year, and it’s true that I’ve only written one new short story – and that one was another daft Christmas story that I wrote specifically so I could get cheap laughs by Whamrolling people, because apparently that’s who I am as a person. And the short story on which Grave is based was published in Haunted Voices, which was lovely – though I wrote the damn thing so long ago that I keep forgetting that happened this year. However, I did also finish adapting Heaven Burns into a novel, so I suppose I did write a fair old chunk of fiction. Whether it works or not, I have no idea. My plan for 2020 is to stop freaking out about the damn thing and actually send it out into the world like I should have done ages ago.

Teaching: I’ve written about this on Facebook but not over here, so here it is – I really enjoy teaching. I love watching people develop into actors and watching actors develop into better actors. I love being the one to introduce students to practitioners, exercises, new ways of doing and seeing things, and watching them experience it all for the first time or rediscover skills they haven’t put to use in a while. I love what it does to my own practice as well as theirs, because it really is true that you don’t fully understand anything until you’re able to explain it to another person.

Fortunate for me, then, that this year has involved quite so much teaching. I’ve continued working with EAS’ Stage 3 students and took the first Performance class of the year, and in January I began teaching the first cohort of students taking the ATCL Diploma. I designed EAS’ version of the course, helped select guest artists, and celebrated as 100% of the students passed with Distinction. I’m very excited to see where our first cohort will go, and looking forward to welcoming new students in the new year.

Performing: Being broken mentally and physically at the start of 2019, I really wasn’t keen to perform much this year and didn’t seek out opportunities as much as I might have. I did bust out Grave a couple of times, once for In The Works Theatre where I opened for the truly delightful Space Gecko Project, and then for a short run at the Scottish Poetry Library during the Fringe. I also made my debut at Loud Poets, which was an excellent gig that I enjoyed the hell out of (and continued finding thrown sweets in my bag for weeks afterwards). By the end of the year I felt I’d got my mojo back somewhat, so I did a couple of open mics to give the Christmas stories an outing and we’ll see what happens in 2020. I have plans for Grave. I might resurrect Star Cuddie if I decide I need an excuse to dye my hair black again. We’ll see.

Directing: After the fringe in 2018, as I spent my time curled in a ball of physical pain and existential terror, I came to the conclusion that I hated directing and wanted nothing more to do with it. So naturally, I’ve done more of it throughout 2019 than ever, and only one of my gigs was something I specifically sought out. From my students’ work to a Summerhall lab, two Fringe shows (technically three if you count self-directing my own), starting work on my first opera and did preliminary bits on a couple of projects for next year. I’ve been learning to trust my instincts again, and realising that even though last year’s escapades kicked the everloving shit out of me, they somehow managed to yield good things.

Dramaturgy: aka MY FAVOURITE THING. I love working with other people’s texts, I really do. I love getting to know people and finding out what story they’re wanting to tell and what their voice sounds like, and whether they need to be gently coaxed or gently terrorised. This year brought opportunities to work with first-time writers, established writers, writers exploring new disciplines, and writers who have, as all playwrights should, been dead for three hundred years (closer to 400, but I’d rather quote accurately than count accurately). I was going to get specific and mention each of these projects by name, but they’ve been numerous and my relationship to time is terrible, so I’m worried that I’ll have mentally assigned some of them to the wrong year and will forget things and upset people. Suffice it to say that if I’ve dramaturged your work this year I had an amazing time doing so and I want to geek out over the broad sweep and minute word choices of your scripts again soon.

 

I’m heading into 2020 with a number of projects that really excite me lined up – the main tranche of rehearsals for Cavalleria Rusticana, the R&D week and Manipulate sharing of Canto X (the Dante-inspired thanatheatrical piece on which Flavia and I are collaborating), and the thing I can’t talk about yet. And the other thing I can’t talk about yet. And the other things that are waiting on funding decisions. 2020 looks promising – so if the world completely goes to Hell then I apologise for doing the life equivalent of planning a barbecue on a sunny day.

 

Jen at Cymera


2018

I have not liked this year. Professionally it hasn’t been too bad, politically it’s been ridiculous, and personally it has been overshadowed by loss, painful anniversaries, the rekindling of an old trauma and several months of physical pain. My biggest achievement this year is probably that I’m still standing (albeit sometimes with the aid of a stick) and that by the start of 2019 I’m writing again. And there has been progress, there have been things I’ve been proud of mixed in with the awfulness, so I’m going to use this post to remind myself of that.

2017 was a good year for me. I’d done the 100 Rejections challenge and felt the benefits. I’d had publications, scratches, a residency and a lot of promising meetings. My goals were to do the challenge again, get one of my plays staged, assemble my short story collection and start shopping it around, and to tour the spoken word show I was working on.

Things got off to a good start. I began 2018 with a Tom McGrath Award, allowing me to write another draft of Volante. I’d been given a small grant by Illicit Ink to develop Star Cuddie (the above-mentioned spoken word show about women in astronomy), and I had a scratch lined up at Summerhall and would later debut it at Hidden Door. By the end of February, Flav and I had a work in progress showing lined up at a festival, and I’d just found out that I’d won the ART Award.

Then the HellCat died, and my relationship with the year never really recovered. I don’t want to go into detail about how what happened to him echoed what happened to my parents, or the series of weird coincidences that followed and made the headspace difficult to manage as the schizo brain began screaming “what did I fucking tell you” and basically didn’t stop. Working through the trauma and StPD stripped a lot – honestly most – of the joy out of the things I was doing. It meant the blows to my confidence hit much harder, which led to my ceasing to write anything for my own enjoyment, and to my sending half as many submissions/applications as last year.

So I definitely failed to repeat the 100 Rejections challenge, since I only actually racked up 50 submissions – and ten of those were just in the last month, since I started feeling things again. However, my hit rate has been as high as in 2017. Out of 50 submissions (technically 48, since I had to withdraw two due to the pieces being accepted elsewhere), I made it onto 11 shortlists, which yielded 6 acceptances. While quite a few of my acceptances in 2017 were for small things like getting shorts into new writing nights, in 2018 my applications led to readings and a staging of full works. I also found that the work I’d done in previous years continued to pay off, so 2018 brought me a fair amount of work that I didn’t specifically seek out.

While I scratched and debuted Star Cuddie as planned, I had to put the project on hold after Hidden Door so that I could concentrate on Heaven Burns. The feedback I got from the audiences at Hidden Door was very positive, and I’ve begun some good conversations that will hopefully lead to my putting the show on its feet again in the near future. I’ve also got exciting news about my other spoken word show, Grave, but you’ll hear that when I’m allowed to share it.

The one goal for 2018 that I definitely hit was getting one of my plays staged. Winning the ART Award got me a full Fringe run at Assembly Roxy, something I couldn’t possibly have afforded to self-fund, and I’m incredibly grateful to the Assembly team for all they did for me. What I love about the ART Award is that in both years of its existence, it has supported artistically risky plays. Neither Andy Edwards’ Scribble nor my own Heaven Burns were conventional crowd-pleasers, and while I can’t speak for Andy, I can say that I really appreciate the opportunity I was afforded by the Roxy’s boldness. The value of their support was inestimable, and I’m especially grateful to Luke Holbrook for his interest, guidance and apparently infinite patience.

Of course, the joy of plays that aren’t conventional crowd-pleasers is that they don’t please everyone, and Heaven Burns got the full range of reviews. Some publications loved it, one even nominated it for another award. Some hated it. Some were exactly the people who should hate it. The one piece of feedback that was consistent across the board was that the play strained at the limits of a Fringe time slot, and it’s true – it’s a big play, and it needs a bit more breathing space. It also needs a bigger team and a proper production budget. I have no definite plans for its onward life at the moment, but I’m also currently taking my first actual time off since before rehearsals began, so let’s just see what happens. For now, I’m glad that it happened and grateful to everyone involved for their belief and their work.

In addition to Heaven Burns, 2018 saw Old Bones visiting Prague and Buxton. Over its two short runs it played to full houses and great reviews, and audiences really seem to love the intimacy and interaction of the piece. I’m so proud of Daniel Hird for rising to the challenge I set him, successfully self-directing and getting the show out there into the world. I believe there are plans for future performances, to be announced in due course. And hopefully it’ll make its way to Scotland at some point!

Then, right at the end of the year, there was the staged reading of Volante at the Edinburgh Multilingual Stories Festival (which is honestly one of the loveliest small festivals I’ve encountered). I gave the new draft I’d written courtesy of that Tom McGrath award to Flavia and the new cast, and we spent a couple of days going to town on it. I love coming back to a script after spending a solid chunk of time away from it, and after the darkness of Heaven Burns and Old Bones I was in desperate need of the hope and self-renewal of Volante. Even though it was just a reading and not a full production, it seemed to strike a chord with people. Hiding out in the tech box, watching people come out of the audience and join the actors for a dance on stage after the epilogue was a lovely feeling.

So of my four goals for 2018, I achieved one twice over, put one on hold to facilitate another, and made it to 50% of the other despite adverse circumstances. The only one I failed at completely was finishing the collection and beginning the hunt for a publisher – and even then, most of the work is done so that’s an easy one to pick up now that my energy is coming back. For a year that was so miserable on a personal level, that doesn’t feel too bad.

There were other achievements, too. I did two other performances at Hidden Door – reprising The Ambassador’s Reception with Interrobang & Poetry as Fuck, and sharing a stage with my husband for Interrobang’s The Edinburgh Bible, which we also performed at the Book Festival. I had pieces published by 404 Ink and Marbles Mag. I wrote two plays for the students at Edinburgh Acting School, an adaptation of Tartuffe and a new piece called Deidkist Dolls, which let me explore writing for large casts. I joined the steering group for Theatre Directors Scotland, and I now run the Facebook group and am working on a proposal for a slush fund scheme that has the potential to do something truly radical (big words, I know – but not ones I use lightly).

I should probably illustrate this with pictures, tag people, all that kind of thing. I should probably set goals for 2019. But that can wait. We’ve got just under 48 hours of this strange year left to go. Plenty of time to figure out what to do next, and for the moment I am out of steam.


Heaven Blogs #1: The Origin Story

I’ve picked up a lot of new followers recently, which I imagine has something to do with the EdFringe entry for Heaven Burns going live… which probably means it’s about time I wrote something about the show!

 

The short introduction to Heaven Burns is this: I’ve been fascinated by the Scottish witch hunts since my teens, so when I started writing plays it was only a matter of time before I wrote one on the subject. That play was Heaven Burns, which I wrote in 2015. There was a rehearsed reading at Previously… Scotland’s History Festival that year, followed by two years of looking for a home for the script. After a lot of rejections I was on the point of shelving it, but then the Assembly Roxy Theatre Award came up and I decided to give it one last shot… and I won! Heaven Burns will run for three weeks at Assembly Roxy during #edfringe2018.

 

As we get into workshops and rehearsals I’ll be sharing bits of the preparation process here. Until then my plan is to talk a bit about where the play comes from and the process of creating it, starting today with the very earliest point in its journey – my interest in all things witch-related.

 

I can’t pin down the origin of my interest with any certainty. I was a spooky child and anything with a supernatural element was right up my street. From Babette Cole’s The Trouble with Mum and Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch to Bewitched and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, if there was a witch involved, I was sold. The concept of magic made sense to me, possibly because I experienced a lot of powerful hallucinations in childhood and the possibility of growing up to command an army of museum exhibits didn’t seem like a stretch.

 

As I grew up it became increasingly clear that the world didn’t work the way I thought it had. Like all 90s teenagers I dabbled with the kind of magic that has to be spelled with extra letters, but all it did was bring me to the realisation that things like Wicca aren’t for me. I was looking for something that doesn’t appear to be available within reality. Not to mention that styling yourself a witch was just so bloody popular in the late 90s, and I was an angsty pretentious teenager who wanted nothing to do with things that were popular, so I had to find a way of satisfying my interest while still feeling different.

 

God, being in my teens was exhausting…

 

The answer, I decided, was to look to history. By this point I’d started working as a ghost tour guide, because if you work in the arts in Edinburgh it’s pretty much mandatory that you do your time telling scary stories to tourists. I’d developed a bit of an obsession with the bubonic plague, particularly the epidemic during the 17th century, and had started reading more widely about the period in order to flesh out my mental picture of the society it affected. That led me on to reading more about the witch panics, which fuelled my interest in learning much more about them than we covered on the tours.

 

At this point, being a young and undisciplined reader, my ability to evaluate sources was limited. It took me a while to get the hang of reading critically, but as I got better at it I began to realise how little I understood. Next thing I knew I was down the research rabbit hole, trying to wrap my head around the complex factors that contributed to the witch hunts – Scotland’s shift to Calvinism, folk belief and its overlaps with Catholicism, James VI and all his emotional baggage and subsequent paranoia, the ravages of the plague, family dynamics… even the weather causing crop failure and lost fishing boats. The more I read, the more interested I became in what it must have been like to live one’s everyday life in that society, and that’s what started finding its way into my plays.

 

My first Fringe play, Creepie Stool, contained a sneaky reference to the North Berwick witches. Old Bones, which opens in Prague later this month, engages more explicitly with the events leading up to the North Berwick trials – I’ll be writing a separate post about that in a few weeks. Heaven Burns, the first of my plays to focus solely on the witch hunts, is set a bit later and deals with the brief heyday of the witchprickers, and particularly with one named John Dixon, who turned out to be a disguised woman named Christian Caddell.

 

Spoilers for the play? Not really. Between the blurb and the opening scene, those of you who see it won’t be in any doubt as to the situation. I first heard Christian Caddell’s story from Susan Morrison of Previously… Scotland’s History Festival. She had encountered this little-known figure, unearthed by Dr Louise Yeoman while working on a BBC Scotland documentary, and thought it was such a powerful story that she actually had it printed on the back of her business cards. I’ve still got that card somewhere, and it’s to Susan that I owe the initial spark of the idea for the play.

 

As I searched for what little information there is on Christian, I noticed that she was operating in Morayshire at around the same time as Isobel Gowdie, whose story I had learned in my earlier studies. Isobel is a very unusual case, since she presented herself to the parish authorities and freely accused herself of witchcraft, apparently without being under any kind of duress. She confessed at length and in great detail, telling about her coven’s activities and contradicting prevailing opinions about the Devil’s proficiency as a lover. Her eventual fate is lost to history, but the records of her confessions remain. Christian Caddell, or rather John Dixon, doesn’t seem to have been involved with her trial – but John Innes of Spynie, who hired the disguised Christian to prick witches near Elgin in 1661, was the Notary Public who recorded Isobel’s confession, so they at least have some common acquaintance.

 

This was enough to set my imagination to work. Did the two women ever meet? What would have happened if they had? What kind of fervour spurred Christian on to hunt witches? What makes someone accuse herself of witchcraft when it carries the death penalty?

 

I don’t claim that the play answers these questions, but it does explore one possibility – and I’ll be talking more about how I chose to treat the historical subject matter and how I see its contemporary relevance in future posts. For the moment, I’ll leave things here and not risk turning this into the mega-post where I attempt to explain every thought I’ve ever had relating to Heaven Burns. If you’ve got any questions that you’d like me to answer in future posts, comment away and let me know!

 

And get your tickets for the show, I’d love to see you there. Cast announcement coming soon!


2017 Retrospective: A Year of Aiming for Rejections

It’s been almost a year since I decided to follow the advice of this article and aim for 100 rejections a year. I would like to make crystal clear that it was not a New Year’s Resolution, I do not make New Year’s Resolutions – I began my challenge on December 14th, which is not even Solstice let alone Hogmanay.

 

However, resolution or no, it’s been a really interesting thing to do. I’ve always had a tendency to look at available opportunities and find a way to talk myself out of applying. I would look at them and think “Yes, maybe I should apply, but I don’t quite fit this criterion and I’m sure there’ll be someone who meets this requirement more closely than me, and what right do I have to do/talk about this thing anyway?” And then I wouldn’t apply, because it seemed like a waste of time and effort when the answer was almost certainly going to be no.

 

The thing is, my attitude was not unreasonable. Arts opportunities almost always attract far too many applications, and you’re much more likely to find opportunities that are an 80% fit than a 100% fit. The chances are there will be somebody better suited or more experienced. The chances are it will be a no.

 

Of course, not applying for things means that I might not get a no, but I definitely won’t get a yes. There can be no acceptances without first applying. So I decided to aim for 100 rejections in order to break myself of the habit of not applying. If I saw an opportunity that looked interesting I would resist the urge to talk myself out of it and just give it a shot.

 

At the time of writing, I’ve sent out 97 applications. These range from sending out short stories or plays to lit magazines to sending full plays to large theatres doing open submissions, to applying for residencies and submitting scripts to companies that have requested them. It’s a mixture of theatre, fiction, spoken word and a few things that I would struggle to categorise. Three applications were sent within the past day.

 

At the time of writing I have 56 rejections. Sharing that publicly is a touch nerve-wracking, since I know that many people believe you should never admit to being rejected for anything, but sod it, there it is. Some of those rejections have stung pretty badly. Others have barely registered. On a few occasions I’ve received rejection emails and had to go and look up what the opportunity was because I’ve forgotten. In 7 cases I was notified that I had made the shortlist, in a further 2 I made the longlist, and in 9 others there was no mention of long or shortlists but I was given specific, encouraging feedback and/or asked to keep in touch. 38 were outright rejections, either with no feedback given at all or with feedback that wasn’t particularly helpful (feedback that directly contradicts itself, for instance, is difficult to put to any constructive use).

 

Three of my rejections led to meetings that led to other things – in one case a bit of R&D on a new piece that took place in October, in another to an ongoing conversation with a company that hopes to develop something with me, and in the third to R&D that will happen in 2018.

 

As for acceptances, there have been 11 of those. These have ranged from having short pieces in new writing events at the Bolton Octagon, Southwark Playhouse and Brighton Rialto, to pieces published in lit mags and to R&D opportunities with BOP Artists supported by NTS and with Imaginate at Summerhall. One project fell through. It happens. But 10 had definite results, which feels great.

 

Of course, my list doesn’t include things I applied for before the arbitrary date on which I began this challenge. A week earlier I had, on a whim, sent a pitch to 404 Ink for some anthology thing that they were putting together. That turned out to be Nasty Women, which has been selling copies all over the world, was the best-selling book at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, and was recorded by Audible a couple of months ago. The list also doesn’t include things I didn’t have to apply/submit for – anything that I was approached for directly is unlisted, and I’ve picked up a lot of gigs by direct contact this year.

 

The applications and submissions I’ve done this year have been quite varied in form and the amount of effort required. Some have been a case of seeing an opportunity, thinking “I’ve got something that fits the bill sitting on my hard drive”, and just sending it along. That mostly happens with lit mags seeking submissions and short play nights doing call-outs for scripts.

 

Others have been much more labour-intensive, involving detailed proposals for the work I want to create, tailored to a specific brief. These, I find, are the tricky ones, partly because you’re having to put your faith in your own interpretation of the brief and hope that your vision matches the company’s, and partly because when you’re creating a very detailed proposal it’s easy to fall in love with the project, which makes it utterly galling if you then get rejected.

 

Fortunately, I’ve found that the proposals I’ve fallen madly in love with and had rejected on initial submission have gone on to have a life elsewhere. Early in the year I pitched for a commission to write a sci-fi radio play, but while I made the shortlist I wasn’t selected. I turned the piece I’d pitched into a short story, which I’ve performed at a couple of spoken word events, both of which led to other gigs. I’ve done well out of that story, and I still have plans to flesh it out into a play. Likewise Unlockable, the project I began developing on my BOP Artists residency, started life as a proposal for a prize with an extremely specific brief. I didn’t win the prize (though I appreciated the personalised and encouraging feedback), but I was determined to work on the piece anyway so when the call for BOP Artists went out a few weeks later, I went for it.

 

Of course, while I might feel like I write applications for a living at the moment, they’re not all I’ve been writing. This has been a busy year. I’ve written three full scripts, one first draft, a second act to an existing script, two short “demo versions” of scripts that will become full length, numerous short stories, some poems (god help me), a spoken word show and the first part of a novel. I’ve done guest and feature slots, I’ve flyted, I’ve performed in a Ferrero Rocher-themed murder mystery (don’t ask). I’ve been on panels for stuff. I’ve got another spoken word show to write in December. I’ve also been teaching. I’m going to Germany tomorrow to give a workshop at the University of Konstanz. I have some exciting news about one of my plays that I can’t share yet. For someone who feels like she never does anything but fill in application forms, I have a fair amount of evidence to suggest that I occasionally do other things.

 

All in all, aiming for 100 rejections feels like it’s worked out for me. So am I going to do it again next year? At the moment I don’t know. Probably, though I don’t think I’ll start it straight away. I have a show to write this month, and once that’s done I’d like to take a bit of time to do the things I’ve been putting off – finishing the collection of short stories and looking for a home for it, starting the next spec script, working on a solo show for one of my long-standing collaborators.

 

Perhaps I’ll start my next year of aiming for 100 rejections once I’ve had a chance to work through some of that. Or, more likely, I’ll find myself with a glut of things I want to apply for and just sort of stumble into it.  In the meantime, 33 responses to go, soon to be 36…


Selbstmordversuch

 Going to be talking about suicide in this one, folks.  Don’t read it if that bothers you. 

 

I’ve always been very private and secretive about my suicidal impulses. I didn’t talk about suicide when I was planning it because I didn’t want anyone to hinder my attempts. I didn’t talk about it when I was better because it horrified me, and it took me years to be able to name what I had tried to do. I talk about it now because after a lot of therapy, I finally can. And I feel I should talk about it, because I want people to know that a suicidal person doesn’t always look and act the way one might expect.

 

My priority when planning to kill myself was to inconvenience people as little as possible. The aim was to die quickly, preferably not painfully, and in a manner that would not involve anyone else or cause unnecessary suffering for those left behind.

 

My attempts happened at times when I believed, rightly or wrongly, that nobody would care much if I died – but even if nobody cared for me, I still didn’t want to hurt them. I reasoned that an accidental death would inflict less anguish than an obvious suicide, so my demise would have to be carefully staged.

 

These criteria meant no slashed wrists (I never cut – working as a life model during both breakdowns meant there was no way to conceal self-harm), no hanging, no downing dozens of pills. There could be no throwing myself in front of vehicles (though if driverless trains had been in operation on my regular routes in 2010, I might not be writing this now). I would also need to set things up so that an inquest wouldn’t find any evidence of my intentions, which meant scrubbing my notebooks and journals of anything that might give the game away.

 

If this sounds more like planning a murder than a suicide, that’s pretty much how it felt (or so I’d imagine – my experience of planning murders is admittedly limited to the world of fiction). But do you know how difficult it is to plan a wholly convincing “accidental death” when the intended victim is the one doing the planning? It’s hard. The body fights for survival even when the spirit is utterly sick of it. Dying accidentally yet deliberately requires an act of will – don’t try to catch yourself when you fall, don’t let yourself surface, don’t take that breath. The body reacts instinctively, it demands continued life, and there is little so disappointing as the feeling of gasping to fill the lungs you were trying to shut down. The body would win, and all I could do was refine my plans and cling to the impotent hope that I’d kill it successfully next time.

 

When I stopped eating, I thought I was onto something. I had grown to hate eating, because what was the point in continuing to fuel a body I wanted to destroy? I was living away from home, I wasn’t regularly eating in company, so it was easy enough just to stop. I didn’t intend to starve to death, since that would have been too obvious – I was relying on my tendency to get dizzy and black out when I don’t eat, hoping that it would happen during one of my night-time rock climbing adventures down on the beach. Scrambling about on the rocks in the small hours was a known habit of mine, so no-one would question my being there. With any luck I would faint and fall from the rocks into the sea, and that would be it. My bright and promising young life snuffed out in a Tragic Accident. Perfect.

 

It didn’t work, of course. A few weeks into my plan, my parents came to visit. At this point I was just drinking milk to curb the hunger pangs and downing packets of sugar to heighten the dizzy spells. I was losing my ability to look like a functioning human being. My face was gaunt, I was piling on makeup to conceal the shadows under my eyes and the hollows of my cheeks. My clothes were starting to hang off me. My hair was constantly pinned up to hide the fact that I lacked the energy to wash it. I could pass among strangers, sort of, but my parents could see me for the haggard, distant mess that I was.

 

They took me home. I didn’t resist. I didn’t have the energy. But once I was home, eating nothing ceased to be the path of least resistance. They would give me food and insist I ate some. I didn’t have it in me to refuse. I started to think about other options for suicide, but it was too late. Within days I was so far into catatonia that I didn’t have the wherewithal to think anything any more. For months I said nothing, did nothing… I survived catatonia because my parents were on hand to make sure I ate. They got me into therapy, so by the time I was able to think again I had some medical support, so I was able to manage the suicidal ideation that occurred during my recovery and not act on it.

 

If that catatonic episode had happened just a couple of years later, after my parents had died, while I was living alone, I wouldn’t have survived it. There would have been no need for my convoluted staged accident, I would simply have had no-one to make me eat and no energy to correct the situation myself. Eventually I would have starved, and sooner or later the unpaid bills would have stacked up or someone would have noticed the smell of decomposition and I’d have been a sad, quickly-forgotten story in the Evening News and that would have been it.

 

This is extremely uncomfortable to write about. It’s probably an uncomfortable read. Sorry about that. There’s more I feel I should include – I should talk about what it’s like to deal with the strange dichotomy between living a life that I’m happy with and want to continue with, and the constant low-level ideation, that little voice in my head that never quite stops saying “die, die, die, die, die”. I will, another time. A thousand words seems to be about my limit for one sitting, where this subject matter is concerned.

 

I’d love to sign off with some positive message about how it all gets better and brighter and everyone should just hang on in there, but since I’ve already mentioned that this is something I still deal with, that would be false. So I’ll end this post with the same phrase I’ve been using to answer the question “How are you?” for the past few years.

 

I’m still alive.

 

How are you?


Squiggles

This monologue was originally intended to feature in Such a Nice Girl, the play I wrote for the Just Festival in 2014. The character was cut and the play went in a different direction, but this piece has been used once or twice as a standalone monologue. I’m sharing it here because the events that inspired it have been on my mind of late. (I’m also sharing it under a Creative Commons license, so if you’re an actor and you want to use it you can do so royalty-free – click here for full details.) 

 

Squiggles. That’s what I used to call her. Partly on account of her hair – growing out of her head in little squiggles, but that wasn’t where it really came from.

 

No, it was from when she was two, and her big brother had just learned to write his name at school. Eilidh was determined she was going to write hers too, so she went and got her crayons and made her daddy write her name so she could copy it, just like Alisdair’s teacher had done for him. Then she took her favourite crayon, her blue crayon, and she had it in her wee fist, with her head down so her nose was just about touching the paper, and she was like that for about fifteen minutes until she came up to me with this solemn look on her face and said “Here you go, Mummy. That’s my name. Put it on the fridge.” And I looked at it and she hadn’t even tried to copy the writing at all! She’d just drawn all these squiggles. So I looked back at her and asked, quite seriously, “Is your name Squiggles?”

 

And she looked at me – she was such a serious wee lass, you could never tell if a thing like that would make her laugh or cry. I raised my eyebrows, making myself look even more serious, and that’s when she decided to laugh. And then she wouldn’t stop laughing, and said yes, that was her name, and it just kind of stuck. I kept calling her Squiggles even when she was too old for that sort of thing and would just sigh and pretend she didn’t know me.

 

Telling her I was dying was… Well, you can imagine. Jim offered to tell the kids, or I could have got the doctor to do it, but… The poor doctor, he was only about Alisdair’s age himself. Must have drawn the short straw. Looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, like he was wondering why he hadn’t just skived school and got a job at McDonalds. He was sitting in the chair next to my bed, and I was patting him on the shoulder and shushing him and thinking about how his shirt needed an iron. I knew what he was saying, but he could hardly get the words out. He kept getting as far as “I’m so sorry, Mrs Curran,” then he’d stammer and start again so I just said “I know. It’s ok. I know.”

 

And I did. I knew. I knew the minute I saw his face. Truth be told, I knew the minute the ultrasound man stopped as he was going over this bit here and went over it again. I knew when they said I’d to get a biopsy. I knew this was what they’d been looking for, even though they hadn’t said the name. All those tests I’d had over the last year. All those times when they’d told me it was stress or IBS or the menopause – because if you’re my age, everything’s the bloody menopause – I knew it was this. Cancer. Too fast and too aggressive to fight it, or even to slow it down. Sometimes you just know, it’s like your whole body saying to you “Come in Number 99, your time’s up!”

 

So I couldn’t let the wee doctor lad tell my family when I’d had more time to get used to the idea than he had. I told Jim first, and I could see how hard it hit him, but I could see him push it down into that part of his brain where he keeps things to be dealt with later. And he said he’d tell the kids, and I said maybe he could tell Alisdair. Ally’s like his dad, he’ll deal with things in his own way. He’s never really liked to show his feelings in front of his mum. He’d be better off with his dad. They could shrug and be silent about it. But Eilidh needed to hear it from me, and I needed to be the one to tell her. So I did.

 

And she looked at me, just the same look on her face that she had that day she tried to write her name. And I remembered that, and I raised my eyebrows like I did back then and wished she’d laugh. I could have done with seeing her laugh. But this time she didn’t. This time she just welled up and stared at me and said “Mum, I can’t manage without you.”

 

And I just said “Oh, Squiggles. You’re going to have to.”


The Tale of A Defective Woman

For International Women’s Day, I’ve decided to share the story of my infertility, sterilisation and the opposition I faced for wanting to control my own body. I make no apology for oversharing, and I’m not interested in any attempts to persuade me that I should have children. 

 

It’s been 18 months since I got sterilised. I’ve been considering whether to write about it ever since the operation, on the one hand eager to share my experiences but on the other eager to avoid the negative response that so often greets a woman choosing not to give birth.

 

In my case the childless state wasn’t wholly my choice. I’ve known since I was 17 that I was highly unlikely to conceive naturally. That was fine with me. I already knew that I didn’t want to conceive at all, so I reconciled myself to my infertility quite easily. However, several other women in my family had been told the same thing and had gone on to produce legions of offspring, so I knew better than to take any risks.

 

The most logical solution, it seemed to me, was to seek tubal ligation. A one-off minor operation struck me as a far better option than an endless round of pills, patches and injections. I approached my GP to ask for a referral. I was told I was too young to make a decision with permanent consequences. I argued that having a child is a decision with permanent consequences, and if I was legally old enough to do that then I ought to be considered old enough to take responsibility for myself. Nevertheless, my request was denied.

 

Thus began an annual battle with a succession of GPs. Every year, like clockwork, I would turn up a year older and ask for a referral. Every year, like clockwork, they would advise me that no-one would take my request seriously until I was at least 30 and probably more like 35. On one occasion, when I was 25, I succeeded in persuading a young male GP to refer me. It felt like such a triumph until I met the gynaecologist I’d been referred to. She informed me that I would want babies, no matter what I might think, that if I didn’t have them I’d regret them and that any woman who said otherwise was lying to herself.

 

I looked into the possibility of going private but chose not to. What put me off wasn’t the idea of saving up for it, or even the knowledge that I’d have to have the procedure done in the south of England, far away from my support network – it was the fact that this had become my personal ideological battle. If I had been in my 20s, married and struggling to conceive, those same doctors would have been bending over backwards to help me. If I’d been producing one child after another for all those years, no-one would have called me ‘entitled’ for using NHS resources to bring them into the world. If I’d presented with gender dysphoria and sought SRS I would not, based on what I hear from trans friends, have been told that I was too young to make decisions about what to do with my own body. But because I was choosing to consolidate my infertility rather than fighting to become a mother at all costs, I was being shut down. I felt utterly disempowered, but I was determined that I would keep fighting.

 

In the meantime I had to seek other means of contraception. For eight years I used Depo-Provera, the contraceptive injection. The noticeable side-effects were bad skin and low mood, but it kept me pregnancy-free and stopped my periods. Menstruation had always been a miserable experience for me, bringing with it cramps, nausea, vomiting, anaemia and cluster headaches at irregular intervals from the age of 13 until my first Depo jag at 18. Ceasing to menstruate was incredibly liberating. I felt like my life had been given back to me. I loved it. I was quite prepared to stick with Depo for as long as it took to win my battle for sterilisation (by which time I hoped my cycle would have settled down).

 

Then, when I was 25, I was sent for my first bone density scan. It revealed that had osteopenia and was on the cusp of osteoporosis. The cause, I was informed, was Depo. I had to stop my injections immediately and start carefully managing my calcium intake and absorption. I was advised that with proper calcium intake and a boost in oestrogen (provided by a change in contraception), I should be able to minimise the damage and I could expect to be back to a normal bone density for my age… by the time I hit menopause.

 

I wasn’t happy about all this, but what could I do? I did as I was told, altered my diet and began the quest for a new form of contraception. I tried the pill in various forms, followed by the patch, without success. It quickly became apparent that anything involving oestrogen is detrimental to my sanity. I experienced sharp, uncontrollable mood swings and became extremely aggressive, to the point where I genuinely feared that I would hurt someone. I was also anaemic from bleeding constantly, which wasn’t helpful, and gaining weight every time I switched contraceptives.

 

Being unable to take oestrogen means that my bone density will always be poor for my age, so I’ve just had to get used to having fractures every so often. But I still needed contraception, so I enquired about the IUD. I was advised that since I hadn’t had children this wouldn’t be ideal, but my options were limited. I tried the copper coil first. Cue nausea, cramps and heavy bleeding for six weeks until it had to be removed. Then I had a Mirena coil fitted, and in spite of repeated warnings that it was unlikely to suit a childless woman, it turned out to be the best option I had. Yes, there was more weight gain, mild mood swings, dysthymia, bad skin, tenderness and bloating, but at least I wasn’t actively throwing up or talking myself down from punching people who looked at me funny.

 

By this time I was 28. I’d spent three years switching from one form of contraception to another, having my hopes dashed again and again, paying the physical price for each failure. Fair to say that I was scunnered. And all the while I was being told again and again that I could not be sterilised because I was too young. It was incredibly frustrating.

 

As soon as I hit 30 I made the usual appointment. I opened with my absolute certainty that motherhood has no place in my life. I went through the usual list of contraceptives I’d tried and been told to discontinue. I closed with the argument that I was biologically old enough that I could have a teenaged child of my own, whom I would be responsible for educating about their contraceptive options, so it was increasingly ridiculous that I was not considered ready to be responsible for my own body.

 

The GP, an older man whom I had not seen before, simply nodded, agreed that I was old enough to make informed decisions about my own fertility, and referred me on. I couldn’t believe how helpful he was. Suddenly, now that I was out of my 20s, everything had changed. The gynaecologist offered no opposition, she just checked that I knew what the procedure involved and understood that it was permanent, then put me on the waiting list.

 

I was 31 by the time we found a suitable operation date, and it all went very smoothly. I will admit to a flicker of frustration when I was being prepped for the operation itself – I can understand why the nurses were checking with me that I understood that the procedure was permanent, but I didn’t appreciate being asked to confirm that my husband was happy for me to have it. Again, I can see why they asked, but the idea that my control over my body was somehow in my husband’s gift rubbed me up the wrong way.

 

A quick general anaesthetic, a few incisions and a couple of Filshie clips later, I was done. Goodbye fertility, hello freedom from constant synthetic hormones. The IUD was removed in the same operation, bringing down what felt like five years’ delayed period pain upon my poor body all at once. I spent a week curled round a hot water bottle and praying to Diclofenac for deliverance, then everything calmed down. I’ve spent the past 18 months learning what the new normality is. I still hate my menstrual cycle and resent its presence in my life, but the pain and blood loss happen at a manageable level these days. It’s an inconvenience rather than something that puts me completely out of action for days on end.

 

What annoys me is that this could have been my life years earlier. If my decisions had been respected and my early requests for sterilisation granted, I could have avoided a great deal of pain and inconvenience. Without the brittle bones I might have avoided numerous hospital trips and time spent rocking splints, plaster casts and crutches, or just fighting through invisible pain from the various fractured vertebrae I’ve had.

 

The argument against early sterilisation is always “What if you change your mind?” Does any doctor ask you this when you want to get pregnant? I’ve never heard of a doctor saying “Are you sure? You’re only 28, that’s still very young. What if you get to your 30s and find you don’t want a child then? What if you meet a man who doesn’t want children? Come back and see me when you’re 35, and if you still want children we can talk about it then. I just don’t want you making a decision you’ll regret.” And I very much doubt that a 31 year old woman going for her 12 week scan is repeatedly reminded that this decision she’s making is permanent, and asked to confirm that she understands the process that her body is going through, and quizzed about whether she’s considered termination instead. A woman choosing to bear a child is generally assumed to know what she’s doing. A woman choosing to forego motherhood is generally assumed not to.

 

If I ever regret my choice, then it will be up to me to take responsibility, accept the decision I made and find a way to get on with my life. I’m 33 now. I’ve yet to feel even the slightest flicker of activity from my supposed biological clock. The thought of being pregnant still fills me with horror, and I’ll be absolutely astonished if that ever changes. But if it does, if I suddenly find myself teleported into a chick flick and start obsessing over babies, it will be my responsibility to accept the choices I made and find a way to live with them.