Tag Archives: Writing

Heaven Blogs #4: A post that got away from me somewhat

I’ve just spent three incredible days in the depths of the Roxy, watching characters who have existed in my head for three years starting to take shape.

I can’t pretend that I have even the least amount of chill about this. The process of making theatre blows my mind every single time, and this is the first time I’ve had the chance to work this way on one of my own scripts. I’ve watched other people direct my text, I’ve directed other people’s texts, but I’ve never been both writer and director on anything but development pieces.

Over the past few days I’ve found myself saying repeatedly that I know almost nothing about this play. That might sound like an odd thing for the writer to say, but… it’s true. Yes, I poured my research and craft and love and labour into the script. I thought I knew the characters and their motivations inside and out. Then I actually got into the room with the actors and realised how utterly wrong I was.

Letting go of the script is always nerve-wracking. I’m used to that. But when I hand it over to another director, it’s out of my hands. This time I am the director, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to assume a position of complete authority – to say “this is my text, my word on it is final, the actors’ job is to serve my vision”.

The fact that it would be easy is precisely why I don’t do it. It’s far more difficult for me to relinquish control and just trust the actors to use their instincts and intelligence… so that’s what I have to do, because I know how much I love the results this process can yield. Besides, it would do an injustice to this play if directing it were not a leap of (or into) faith.

On Monday I handed the cast over to Flav again. We’ve had a change of lineup, losing our original Isobel, which meant welcoming a new member to the team – the excellent Marion Geoffray of Theatre Sans Accents. Fortunately Marion is a veteran of the Domingues D’Avila experience, having participated in Flavia’s PhD workshops earlier this year, so she fitted right in and it has been thrilling to watch her bring her own unique qualities into the room.

I wish there was a way to describe what happens in the rehearsal room without sounding utterly wanky. Either it sounds boringly hippyish, all about grounding and breathing and repeating the same phrases over and over again, or it’s fanciful to the point of being alienating. I could write about the strange alchemy that takes place when you get the right combination of people and words and energy and music, but… does that mean anything to people who weren’t there? It’s a live performance medium. Everything that has happened these past three days is unrepeatable. It can only exist in the moment, you can’t experience it through my retelling. Even if you come and see it in performance, that will be something different. There’s no way to pin down that feeling when you see something that’s just right for the very first time, and that’s probably for the best since the act of pinning it down would kill it. We aim to create those moments in every performance, of course, but that’s still a very different thing to watching it happen in the rehearsal room – and inevitably, a different thing to seeing it through my eyes. The one thing no audience member will ever bring to this show is the years of living with Heaven Burns in their head beforehand. That’s just me.

Experiences that are impossible to capture precisely in words are infinitely frustrating. It bothers me that I can only tell you that these three days have been amazing and ask you to take my word for it. I want to make everyone who reads this understand that I’m so incredibly excited about this show, and that this script has occupied a special place in my heart for reasons that even I don’t fully understand, and that I feel tantalisingly close to making it into the thing I’ve always thought it could be. I want you to understand that these past few mornings I’ve woken up with my heart pounding with excitement at the day’s work ahead of me, and I’ve never felt that way about a show before despite having worked on many things that I’ve loved. Watching the cast making discoveries and taking me into parts of this fictional world that I hadn’t realised existed is something new and intoxicating, and I’m grateful that I have the chance to do this.

This was not how this post was going to go. The plan was to write something insightful about process and music and being in the moment. But fuck it. This is what I’ve got. I suck at marketing but I occasionally surprise myself with my capacity for candour. Come and see the show and maybe more of this will make sense, I don’t know. Come and see it because that’s how being part of the weird wanky alchemy of theatre works.

Melted

That’s me dying of warm weather on the pavement outside the Roxy on Monday, but it’s also a pretty accurate representation of how I feel right now. Knackered and collapsed but so, so happy.


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!


The Nastyversary

A year ago yesterday I received a book in the post. This book:

Nasty Women author copy

My contributor copy of 404 Ink‘s Nasty Women. The look on my face is somewhere between pride, joy and sheer bloody terror based on the growing realisation that this book was something much bigger than I’d anticipated.

I’d first heard about 404 Ink through my husband, Mark Bolsover, who had spotted them on Twitter and foretold their greatness/retweeted them a lot. As the deadline for submissions for the first issue of their lit mag approached, Mark kept nudging me to send something in. I kept putting it off because the only thing I had to send was a monologue and I doubted they’d want it. Then, half an hour before submissions closed, 404 tweeted a gif from one of my favourite songs.

Muse gif

I don’t think it was that actual gif, but it was close enough. It made me smile – 404 Ink has the best damn gif game out there – so I thought “fuck it, why not” and fired over the monologue. It was selected for the lit mag (which surprised me) along with a piece of Mark’s work (which didn’t surprise me at all), so for the first time we were published together.

We went along to the launch, which turned out to be one of the most useful events I’ve ever been to. It was our introduction to Interrobang, Chris McQueer, and most importantly of all to Heather McDaid and Laura Jones themselves, the powerhouse women behind 404 Ink.

At that point I knew they were doing an anthology called Nasty Women and I was aware that the call for pitches was due to close shortly. Again, I’d been ignoring it – not because I didn’t feel I had anything to say, but because the one thing I really wanted to write about was so damn personal that I didn’t really want to write the pitch. That changed when I actually met Heather and Laura in person and decided that I liked them and thought they seemed sound. Again, I thought “fuck it” and proposed a piece about my experiences with hormonal contraception and the toll it took on my body.  Again, they accepted something I’d felt sure they’d reject.

Writing the piece should have been a more nerve-wracking experience than it was, but given the speed with which the anthology was pulled together, there simply wasn’t time to get spooked. The piece was written, sent in and ready before I had much of a chance to think about it. Besides, it was an anthology by a new publishing company being funded via Kickstarter – not much chance that anyone beyond a fairly niche crowd would actually read it, right?

How very, very wrong I was.

The crowdfunding campaign spent its first couple of days bouncing along at a nice rate, which I attributed to a combination of Heather and Laura being savvy about it and to the large number of contributors who were sharing the link. Then Margaret Atwood backed it and tweeted about it and suddenly everything went absolutely bonkers. The project was 100% funded. Then 200%. Then 369% (iirc). There was extra money (always appreciated). There was publicity.

…there was a sudden certainty that people were actually going to read my essay.

And they did. I have no idea how many copies of Nasty Women have been sold over the past year. What I do know is that friends have sent me photos of it in bookshops in different parts of the UK, that it was the best-selling book at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, and that Audible turned it into an audiobook. I know that copies have been ordered by people all over the world.

Which means that there are now a lot of people out there who possess in-depth knowledge of the state of my uterus and more about my sexual history than my mum would have been happy with. I mentally apologise to my mum on a regular basis for my need to share my life with strangers – but I think she’d be happy about the results of my oversharing if she’d lived to see them. I don’t just mean things like Book Festival bestseller status, but the responses I’ve had from other women.

I had always assumed that the extent of my troubles with contraception was unusual before writing that essay. Nobody seemed to talk much about it, and the doctors I saw acted as if I was a statistical outlier. But after Nasty Women came out, several women left reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and their blogs saying that they’d had similar experiences. At the Glasgow launch I found myself having intense, hasty conversations at the signing table with women who wanted to tell me that they’d been through it too. It’s been the same at every Nasty Women event I’ve been involved in since. Older women talk to me about the early days of the Pill and the things they went through. Women my age and younger open up to me because they know that I know. I’ve had medical staff tell me that the essay gave them a new perspective on the patient’s experience. I get emails and Twitter messages from strangers telling me that because of my essay they’ve requested bone density scans, adjusted their calcium intake, rethought their contraception.  One even sent me pictures of the passages she’d highlighted and shown to her GP in order to get a gynaecology referral to discuss sterilisation.

Even though it feels strange to have given strangers such intimate information about me, it makes me incredibly happy to have those moments with readers. It’s often quite emotional, because they’re often talking about it for the first time or I’m the first person they’ve spoken to knowing for certain that there’s a shared experience between us. That’s a big thing to be trusted with. Which is why, for all it has felt exposing and raw, I know that writing that piece was the right thing to do and I’m glad I didn’t have time to talk myself out of it.

My essay isn’t the only one that provoked this kind of response, of course. Skim through the reviews on Goodreads or Amazon and you’ll see lots of readers name-checking the writers whose pieces really spoke to them. I’ve seen my fellow Nasties’ work recommended in threads on social media discussions about the issues they explored. I’ve heard them talk about the readers who have engaged with them, who’ve reached out to share their own stories in return.

In addition to bringing us into contact with the readers, the Nasty Women anthology brought us into contact with each other. I didn’t realise, this time last year, how much of a bond I would feel with my fellow contributors. Ren Aldridge described it as feeling like she’d joined a coven, and I’d agree with that. We haven’t all met in real life, but that doesn’t matter – even the Nasties that I’ve never met are special to me, and it makes me happy when good things happen to them.

Most of all, I feel incredibly happy when good things happen to 404 Ink. Laura and Heather have gone from strength to strength, won one award after another, and continued to be genuinely lovely human beings who do their work with principles and respect for their writers (and they have the best office dog ever). I’m very glad to have them in my life, on my CV and on my bookshelves.

The moral of this story: Writers, find publishers who tweet gifs from your favourite songs and send things to them.


Rejections Suck

Today (well, yesterday, but it was today at the time of writing) has been a rotten day. Two days ago I got a rejection for a thing I really, really wanted. I got shortlisted, which was nice, but still rejected. Then yesterday I got a rejection that I’d kind of expected but got angry about the way it was handled. Then today I got three rejections, including one that I’d had high hopes for. It’s been a pretty galling time, and it’s probably not over – I’m due to hear back on three more things within the next two days. One of them I’m expecting to be rejected for. One I’m expecting but desperately hoping I’m wrong. And one is something I’m on the shortlist for when I didn’t expect to be, so I have no idea what to think. I’m bracing myself for a rough weekend.

 

Normally I find rejections a lot easier to handle. They’re usually spaced out. Some of them hurt, because when you’ve put a lot of work into an application and fallen in love with the project you pitched it’s always galling when the answer’s no… but individual stab wounds to the heart and ego are manageable, and there’s usually a sprinkling of acceptances to soothe the stings. When they’re bunched together like this, though, it feels relentless.

 

The thing is, I know all the reasons not to get upset by rejection. I’ve been on selection panels myself and I know that perfectly valid (and sometimes extremely impressive) applications have to be rejected for any number of reasons. Sometimes it comes down to a simple gut instinct for how things fit together. I’m well aware that rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that your application was terrible (though that is a possibility).

 

This is why I like being told when I’ve made the long or shortlist. I know that not everyone does, I have some friends who hate to be told that. Personally, I appreciate the reassurance that my application wasn’t the first one in the bin. That mine wasn’t the one that got passed around to gleeful cries of “look at this joker!” (This might be something that only happens in the depths of a fevered and anxious writer’s brain, but still, if I’m shortlisted then it can’t have happened at all. Unless they’re shortlisting me for sheer comedy value. Oh god.)

 

However, knowing better than to get upset and actually remaining un-upset are two very different things. I can brush off an individual rejection, but five within three days? It hurts, and I will admit to feeling somewhat bruised and in a deep sulk.

 

The worst thing about it is feeling powerless. I can’t change a damn thing. There’s no undoing the applications, no restoring the moment I began writing them and using a different project instead. There’s no changing the lifetime of experiences that brought me to the point where I felt the need to make these particular shows. And of course there’s no arguing with the decisions made, tempting though it always is.

 

Today I feel useless. I feel like there’s no point in continuing with any of this, like nobody cares about my work anyway and all the work I’ve put into honing my craft is worth nothing. Time is passing, life is short and progress isn’t happening fast enough. I feel resentful towards the years I lost to events that were completely outwith my control. I feel angry and cut off and as if nothing I’ve ever done has any kind of value. I feel like everything is personal even when I know damn well it can’t be.

 

Such is the power of the sulk that I also feel resentful towards the good things that are happening because they interfere with the strop-narrative. Yes, I have the new spoken word show and I’ve got bookings for it and it’s shaping up well. Yes, a show that I wrote is going to Prague. Yes, I got a Tom McGrath award to help with one of my works in progress. These are all things to be happy about, which means that I can’t even just be allowed a straightforward woe-is-me outpouring. Clearly the entire universe is out to torture me by denying me abject misery.

 

The solution, of course, is to buck the fuck up, end the sulk and get on with things. Have the genuine emotional reaction that only my nearest and dearest get to see, turn the entertaining/potentially useful bits into a blog post for the handy dopamine hit that comes from online attention-whoring, go out in the sunshine, restock the cat litter and maybe buy a Crème Egg, then write the things that need to be written today. Read a bit. Do the next round of applications. Get over it. Get over it because freelance life means the next rejection is always just round the corner and if it hits while I’m still in this mood it’s going to be harder to bounce back from. Get over it because freelance life is better than the alternatives available to me and for all its precarity I’m generally pretty happy with it. Get over it because it’s annoying and so is everything else, but at least I can choose whether to annoy myself.

 

I’m pretty sure I intended this post to be a bit more positive and potentially helpful than this. Oh well. Too full of rage for that today.


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…


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.”


A Provocation for the Declaration Festival

Tonight (technically last night, since it’s about 1am) I gave a provocation at the Declaration Festival. It was for the closing event, responding to Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the right to rest and leisure). I was delighted to be part of it, particularly to be in the company of Jenny Lindsay and Harry Giles and their excellent, deeply personal responses to the topic. 

My own response was likewise personal. Unsurprisingly, I came at it from the mental health angle. This is the text…

 

Hi. I’m Jen. You might already know that. I’m never sure how much you know.

 

Thanks for coming. Not that you had a choice, but still… thank you.

 

I hope you like the weather. I chose it specially. I thought it would be a good introduction to my mood, you know? A bit grey. Frosty. Kind of a foreshadowing thing.

 

It’s really nice to see everyone here today. What’s even nicer is that I’m pretty sure that most of you are real. You look real.

 

Except you. You, not so much. I’m not sure whether I’m hallucinating you or not, and it’s not really polite for me to ask complete strangers whether they’re real or not. Normally I wouldn’t call attention to you, just in case you are a hallucination and everyone thinks I’m crazy for interacting with someone who isn’t there. I’d wait until someone else has demonstrated that you’re real to them before I said or did anything involving you. It’s a bit convoluted, I know – the easiest way to establish your reality would be to touch you, but there are two problems with that. First, if you’re not real then this entire room full of people would see me waving my hand through empty air. Second, if you are real then – wait, actually, it’s three problems. Because the second problem would be that I’d just started pawing at a stranger for no apparent reason, and the third would be that while we were in physical contact you might be able to read my thoughts.

 

That’s why I’ll avoid shaking anybody’s hand if I can. You seem like very nice people, and I’ve no doubt your hands are clean and everything, but I’m sure you’ll understand that I don’t really like letting people read my mind until I get to know them a bit better. It makes job interviews and networking sessions a bit of a bitch. Especially when people don’t employ me or don’t reply to me, because then I wonder whether it’s because they saw something in my mind that they didn’t like. I wouldn’t blame them. There’s a lot in there that I don’t like. And here’s an interesting thing – I’ve never succeeded in getting work from someone whose initial greeting involved a kiss on the cheek. I hate cheek-kissing. If touching my hand gives you access to my thoughts, kissing my cheek is like plunging head-first into them. So I’ll keep my distance and run the risk that you’ll think I’m stand-offish. I get that a lot. Stand-offish, reserved, arrogant, bitchy… I just don’t want to let you into my head, that’s all. I’m sorry. It’s not meant as a slight.

 

And now I’m noticing that all of these people are staring at me and that means I’ve been concentrating on you for far too long, trying to figure out whether you’re real. That suggests that you’re not and that I’ve been looking at an empty chair for all this time. So they think I’m weird already. And it’s not that they’re wrong – I’m well aware that normal people don’t have these kind of hallucinations – but I would rather they got to know the professional side of me first. The functioning side. And now they haven’t. Again.

 

The worst thing is that it didn’t have to be this way. I’m in control of this situation, after all. This entire room is part of my story, it’s a construct made in my own mind, so in theory I could turn it into anything I like. Surely, if everything here is the product of my will, I could have manifested a scenario in which I walk into the room and you all automatically think I’m amazing? I could have dreamt up people who have been waiting their whole lives to hear public speaking skills like mine. Why would I imagine a situation where people look at me with long faces, or sneakily check their phones while I’m talking, or think I’m crazy just because I sometimes see things that aren’t there?

 

Oh. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, you look like you’re having a terrible time. Is it just to do with this? Or is it something bigger? If I’ve imagined you, if I’ve made you exist, have I given you an existence that’s that bad? I’ve done that before, and I feel pretty guilty about it. So if I have… If I have then I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what to do about it. The easiest thing, the usual thing, is for me to steer clear of other people. If I can manage my environment, it’s easier to tell when things are real. It limits the possibilities, but not in a bad way. Just in a way that makes life more manageable. Less exhausting.

 

Because that’s what this is. Exhausting. Every time I’ve been in treatment, when I’ve explained the experience of this lovely combination of schizotypal ideas of reference, magical thinking and good old ADD, that’s what my various therapists and head-shrinkers have said. “That must be exhausting.” Every time. And they’re right.

 

They’re right.

 

This is my punishment, my penance, the price I pay for bringing you into existence and making you miserable. The price of inhibited dopamine uptake, deficient serotonin production, of a genetic quirk that triggered an intermittent madness in me. A mind that never stops tormenting me for the real and imagined things I’ve done. A brain I can’t trust, can’t ever turn my back on. A reality in which I can never, ever… rest.

 

And that’s why I’ll always struggle with Article 24, the Right to Rest and Leisure. For someone like me, with a mind like mine, the management never stops. No amount of recognition or legislation will ever be able to force me to let up on myself. The coping mechanisms have to be constant, otherwise they won’t exist at all.

 

But because of that, I appreciate everything that leaves me with only this battle to fight. The wider the recognition of the right to rest and leisure, the more I feel like I have breathing space. Time to myself, time to hide from the world and focus on quieting the noise in my head. Knowing this to be my right makes me feel better when I see the judgemental faces that my brain conjures up looking at me as if I’m lazy or workshy or seeking attention.

 

Are they judgmental, these faces? Your faces? Are the expressions I see on them real? Are the faces themselves real?

 

I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll ever have enough energy to reach a conclusive answer.

 

All I know is this.

 

I’m tired.

 

And I need to rest.