Thursday 31 January 2019

#Chemotherapy Monster

Chemotherapy monster is scary. He (we'll call him 'he', for lack of a better pronoun; 'she' is too close to the bone). Speaking of bone, I can feel chemo monster gobbling at my bone marrow as I write: feeding on me day and night - I apologise in advance for any rhyming - I've been writing a lot of poetry lately. The form, with it's cutting blade, is the most suitable for what is going on in body and mind and spirit. Chemo monster must be kept in check, lest he run amok; he will take as much body, mind and spirit space as you will allow him. You have to allow the body access. The body, if you nurture it just so, will later fight back. You will not meet chemo monster on a walk in the park, or on any outing you are on for a lark. No, chemo monster sluices through your veins. With a dark metallic bite. It likes to haunt and scare. And not just at night. Given it’s own way it would keep you in shadow all day…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me... If you don’t believe in God you must cling fast to the good or the bad will take you down, quick.

Chemo monster carries death to fast growing cells: the soft stuff (a sentence becomes a many hyphenated, slippery thing); it rips at your throat and rips through your bone marrow. It is like having long metal trains slicing through your veins. You know the cold steel of death is clattering through you and left unchecked, it affects not only your body, but also your mind and spirit with its gritted death drive. If you're prone to depression, you really have to watch that it doesn't carry you far, far away. Sometimes it brings ghastly headaches; at other times one features in one's own projectile vomiting championships. How does it feel? Like you have been visited by an alien species intent on taking you over. Last month was hard, this month less so. I hate the catheters in the hands of the cheery nurses, that carry the drip, drip, quiver, quiver, drip. My hands and veins carry the bruises and the strain. Sometimes dark humour quips out. Sometimes I keep it real: After a nurse has loudly proclaimed my weight as I step of the pre-chemo scales: Thanks for announcing my weight not only to my husband, but also to the assembled, I say to medical staff and bemused headscarf wearers flipping through the magazines that keep their own dark dreams in check.

What is hard? I feel my life has been stalled. My life is ruled by Chemo Monster and his diary, dates and demands. You shall not work for 6 months…you shall not drive yourself…you will eat these steroids that inflate your face and make you race…The #1975Inheritance Act case, that began in December 2015 (3 years!) with a surprise (calculated?) and very public family attack has still not gone to court, which is like having had a divorce but waiting for the settlement, or like a recurring nightmare: Why Grandma, what big teeth you have...oh and how fanged these other wolves at the door are....all the better to eat you and steal all the contents of your basket, little Emily-Jane...and then, to turn you into a basket case forever…see the will…it’s written in blood…your blood… The divorce brought relief, but the case is not closed. See, the other, and more painful things in life do not go away. The cruelty of human beings to one another - these things become more acute in life and death situations. You just have more time to think about them. Here lie the long teeth of chemo. But oh, does it separate the wheat from the chaff and the silly from the meaningful. The endless stream of self important guff and nonsense on social media and in the culture.

So how am I managing? I am married to the finest person I have ever met. This is no exaggeration. He's managing everything. I am managing my body, mind and spirit, of which you now have insight. And doing what I can: trying to keep up my spiritual practises; educating the children - fun and engaging and creative; blogging, writing poetry. The thing that needs to be managed most is the mind. It must be reeled in, or it will go where the body wants it to go. If one focusses on chemo monster, he will block out the light completely and you will live in it's shadow. As my husband tells me, you must choose life on a daily basis. For me this is sometimes a mechanical thing. When chemo monster clouds my mind with dark thoughts I have to seek out the light: the faces of my children; the texts of friends; the laughs; the art; stimulating conversations with my brilliant husband; a walk around a castle; the sunset; the early daffodils that speak of hope.

Thursday 24 January 2019

On breaking up and making up with agents: #Writing

I started tweeting about this in response to a thread on Twitter thread I was alerted to this morning regarding leaving editors and agents, but then realised I had more than one tweet to post and I am too chemo-daft to suss out how to link tweets (where is that + and why does it disappear, when you need it?) so am going to talk about breaking up and hopefully making up with agents here instead, in the hopes that this will be all round helpful and I will hear from others in similar stasis.

In 2005, after a national writing award and interest from agents, I took the one who seemed most keen. Greenly, I based my decision on the fact that my soon to be enthusiastic agent was working out of an office that used to be Spike Milligan's. My agent did the rounds with the publishers on my first book. One of the majors who was humming and hawing to what turned out to be a different tune: he wanted to change the (very political) central premise, which after much soul searching, I could not do: Why do I write? What is success? Do I have some deep and sordid need to be famous? What is recognition? What is the truth? This is my truth - I must tell it my waaaaaaay (Cue Frank Sinatra.) Several other publishers said that they had already bought a Post-Colonial novel that year - was this the standard riposte? It all felt a bit whimsical. I felt a bit fed up. And shortly afterwards, a bit gung-ho.

I decided I needed the book out of me and out there, and so I left my agent despite her saying I could seek publishing for book one myself and she would stay on for book two. We had some interaction on the second book, but the energy seemed to have gone. And so I wrote a kind letter expressing my gratitude and she wrote a regretful but kind letter back and thus I ventured forth into the unknown: the unknown in both senses. I was no longer the young writer feted at university and then having won the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring award, at the attendant literary parties with the who's who of the publishing zoo. Those parties terrified me and I had to get tanked up on champagne to cope with them - everyone, it seemed, except me had gone to Cambridge and was uber confident. The only thing Uber about me was a need to flee. Soon it was just me with no agent, no publisher, no editor, no marketing machine: just me, on an icy mountain with no crampons. I was, initially, undaunted. I simply got on with it and had the book published. It felt right at the time and I was confident, given what had gone before to do it.

I went on to write another book that I did not have the goods to promote. The reasons are myriad and complex. Young children? Attendant exhaustion. Breakdown, Depression, Anxiety. Working on other wonderful books for authors? A dwindling sense of self-belief given no accolades to cheer me on? #Fear. Do I regret leaving my agent? At times I have, usually after having visited Waterstones and seen book 3 or 4 of some of my peers who won the same competition as me and further ones to boot. I have also discovered that I can easily plug and rave about the books of authors I have since worked with in an editorial capacity, but struggle to promote my own, though the first has gone on to have lots of favourable press and reviews and has, after some years sold thousands of copies. I am haunted a bit Imagine if I had had a top literary editor and a marketing machine called Jenny - maybe it would have sold in the tens of thousands! Usually, I come round to thinking that it is what it is and I am grateful for the readers who have contacted me to say that the book changed their perspective as to the civil war in Zimbabwe in the 70s - it was worth it.

And now? (What's happened to the font here? - apologies, it'll just have to look like this. You should see what a woman jacked on chemo and steroids laced with caffeine looks like!) I hope to find an agent (I think; I'm scared) for the memoir I am currently writing, but have been out of it all for so many years, the prospect of looking for an agent is like contemplating dating after divorce. But then yesterday, some kind and generous women offered to share their knowledge, time, and even money - an offer of travel to be paid - so they can share their experiences on getting published at a free event. It was timely and meaningful: serendipity - I felt the glimmer of hope and dare I say it, a rising determination again to seek an agent for my own work, after thinking for so long that there was no point in trying to find one Like winning the lottery! given I'm no longer the 'hot property' I was previously being touted to be. I think I'm ready to go out there and face rejection. But nothing ventured, nothing gained and the memoir I am writing will either go out with an agent or go out for free. I'm over promoting me.

Saturday 19 January 2019

How to be a Mother

I've begun writing poetry again. Truth be told I began last year when I was so deeply in depression thanks to my mother and her inscrutable ways, that, along with making art, poetry (and lyric writing) has been the only language I have been able to manage. 

I have been pondering much, given my own experience of not being mothered, post 1975 anyway (all my memories of her actually being a mother to me stop there), and there are reasons for that too, but they are also for another time. 

Of course I am now blogging again, but hoping the poetry will still be my companion. Here then, is a reasonably benign poem about some of my own experience of being a mother - there is a stash of other more hard core stuff from last year that is perhaps for another time:

How to be a mother?

God help me
What do I do?
How to be a mother
And write this too

How to be no trouble
But stick like glue
How to be a me to you and to you
(Times by three)

All you little people 
That I made alive
How to be a mother to you and to you
(Times by two)

Here I am laptop on my lap
Possibly writing a poem about a cat
How can I do that?
When there are mouths to feed

Perhaps if I took speed 
I could write in the night
Like those far off days when
To do so was alright?

The books I wrote
Abandoned in a drawer
Send us her next one
They asked for more

But how silly, how futile
The pen, it seems
When I am responsible now,
For all these little dreams

Thursday 17 January 2019

Hello Again, Hello...

Hello again, hello, I just called to say hello…yes, Neil Diamond. Hope you all had a splendid Christmas. We did. We moved house just in time to get the tree in and the tinsel up. Christmas always begins with the arrival of my eldest son, complete with his renegade humour and a wonderful portrait of my daughter under his arm. I had my first chemo early December and another on the 28th. It’s horrid, but there are worse things in life. Suffice to say us chemo takers deserve a badge. Next round…tomorrow…bleurgh, pass the meringues and cream. In other news, my hysterectomy scar has settled into something like a very long studded question mark. It looks cool and I am considering getting my eldest to tattoo around it. I’m looking forward to getting my bikini on.

Back to Neil Diamond. My grandpa loved Neil Diamond. He used to play it in his Simca, while he sang along, before disappearing into tool shops for long hours, leaving me in the car for long hours, which was sometimes boring, sometimes not. And always hot. In Zimbabwe, in the 70s, boredom was often present. Usually this was an opportunity, as it should always be for imaginative children. And all children are imaginative: they just need the space to be so. If the hand reaches for the television controls or the gaming i-pad too often, the imagination cannot run wild, and it is into the wild that we must go, to create order out of chaos. That way artistry lies. I used to make up whole words in my head as I sat in that burning hot Simca.

As I write this, one of my young sons is constructing a playground out of card for his pet mouse. My daughter has made a modern doll’s house and my other son has constructed Noi’s beach shack with buggy – made out of old calling card ‘bricks’ – The Rev…(his own grandfather) called while you were out and left this card with his kind regards…quaint ain’t it? Without the imaginative space to dream up these ideas, these wonderful constructions would not have come into being. My youngest son spends hours at Lego, he is just learning to read, but from the age of 3 he could follow lengthy 12-year-old Lego instructions – because he had the time to do so. We would just leave him to it.

Schools, with their SATs, and timetables, with playtime a squeeze, cannot, by their nature, allow the time for the imagination to be set free. Time must be made at home instead. If you have lighties as we called sprogs in Zim, make sure they get bored enough to entertain themselves with their own imaginations. They might turn our to be the next Marie Curie or Alexander Fleming – his name was once the name of the hospital where my broken arm was set, after I flew off a gum pole I was tight roping up while listening to Nancy Sinatra’s, These Boots Are Made For Walking. Our heads were made for thinking, and imagining.