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A golden glow greeted me as I stepped out of the Percy Building in the quadrangle at Newcastle University last Wednesday afternoon. The setting sun in the west had a clear corridor past the Hadrian Building and The Boiler House and struck the willow tree (I stand corrected if it isn’t a willow) outside the Hatton Building in front of the iconic arches on campus and lit up its branches like a flaming torch.

I was feeling proud of myself. Usually full of self-doubt and self-deprecation, I allowed myself a moment of congratulation as I stood on the steps watching my fellow students scuttle home from lectures.

I’d done it. I’d handed in my first submissions: a short story and two reflective essays. The last pieces of academic work I’d written were done on a typewriter with carbon paper. I had fond memories of staying up all night with my flatmate Jane, who was on the same course as me, with a packet of Bensons, a bottle of gin and cherry brandy to make Singapore Slings and the toaster and a packet of Mother’s Pride on the table spring to mind; but that was back in 1984.

Who knew that there was a tab on my laptop for adding footnotes when referencing? It had taken me three days of cursing and searching for tiny symbols before I realised this. (I am now a dab hand at adding footnotes if anyone else is stuck!) I was pleased with what I had written, and how I had got to grips with formatting and word processing.

I wrote an email to my Prose tutor, Lars Iyer, at the beginning of term after fudging an answer like a politician in class. Not understanding the question, let alone being able to come up with an answer, I had felt inadequate and had waffled something in reply. I’d beaten myself up on the train on the way home that night as I mulled over the question and in hindsight came up with an understanding of what I was being asked and what I should have said. I felt so stupid, blamed my age and doubted my academic ability. I explained that I felt like I’d arrived in Switzerland and was at the foot of a mountain. In one set of lectures, ‘Process’ we are wandering the green lower pastures and are gently learning about the process of becoming a writer. It is fairly light touch as we learn about keeping a notebook, developing the habit of daily writing, reading like a writer and learning to listen; all very important skills, and all well within my grasp. However, in the ‘Prose’ workshops I felt like I had arrived at the rock face. I had no idea where to put my hands or feet, and the other students, some of the fresh from undergraduate studies, were scaling up the mountain, way ahead of me. I felt stuck, unsure if I had the skills to climb. I was no academic, I was a mature student, a grandmother, having last written an essay over thirty years ago. (Mind you, I was very good at writing essays back then, and used to help other students write theirs.)

A gentle and kind email came back from my tutor, thanking me for my honesty in what he said was a ‘moving’ email. He said to relax, academic thinking would come, and besides, creative writing was not all about academia. They took mature students such as me on to the course for a reason. We had much to offer in terms of life experience and the stories that came with that. (I certainly have a few stories to tell!)

Last week I had a tutorial with Lars, following the submission of the first thousand words of my short story. After correcting some syntax and formatting errors, he suggested I cut the preamble of my story at the beginning as he wanted to get straight to the character’s monologue, which he had enjoyed. He said I had a wonderful narrative voice and had skills as a writer that couldn’t be taught. You could have knocked me down with a feather!

I’d come a long way from the therapy session when it was suggested I do an MA in Creative Writing to satisfy the urge in me to be radgy, but also to give me a conduit to get my story told. Little did I know that that conversation would lead me to be on the steps of the Percy Building having handed in a piece of memoir writing about a very painful time in my life that I had not dared visit for an awful long time. Not being good enough has been a recurring theme throughout my life, but here I was, standing on the steps of the English Department, having handed in my first pieces of work.

Looking at the golden glow in the branches of that tree, I felt a golden glow inside of me too.
Enough of this self-doubt and self-deprecation. That’s the last you’ll hear of it. I am good enough.

Handing on my first submissions. An essay on self-doubt and self-deprecation
A Golden Glow. An Essay on Self-Doubt and Self- Deprecation.

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What does self-care mean to you? Is it just a new-fangled buzz word for the twenty-first century, or a vital part of our lives? Did our grandmothers practise self-care, and if not, should they have done? Thanks to my sober journey and with inspiration from Janey Lee Grace and The Sober Club community, I am learning about self-care and the art of putting oneself first.

When I was teaching full-time and bringing up a family of three children, the nearest I got to self-care was pouring a large gin and tonic whilst cooking tea when I’d got in from work. This, however, was the antithesis of self-care and did me more harm than good. One gin and tonic, and we’re not talking pub measures here, would invariably lead to another, then the evening wasted as I fell asleep soon after the kids were in bed. I would treat myself to a lie in on a Sunday, with the Saturday Guardian and breakfast in bed, but Sunday afternoon would see me back on the dining room table doing the planning that is the dread of every teacher. I was lucky that being a special needs teacher meant I didn’t have marking to do on top! All thoughts of self-care had gone out of the window as I rushed around like a blue-arsed fly seeing to the needs of everyone else, but not thinking of little old me and what my needs were.

Freshly made juice - beetroot, lemon, melon & pomegranate
Freshly made juice – beetroot, lemon, melon & pomegranate

Fast forward to now, and I try to factor some form of self-care into my life every day. It might be a daily walk, weather permitting, along the lane, or allowing myself to read a book – it’s amazing how, even though I’d doing an MA in Creative Writing and have been told to read, read and read some more, that reading in daylight hours still feels indulgent. Self-care might be a massage booked, or a long soak in a bubble bath. It might be a tasty glass of juice (today’s was a blend of beetroot, lemon, melon and pomegranate juice) or breakfast in bed. It might just be spending ten minutes with the bedroom or bathroom door locked, practising some mindful meditation. For me, self-care means prioritising my uni work, writing every day and making the housework wait. I have a short story I’m working on at the moment, as well as two reflective essays which need to be submitted by 16th January. Today I’m writing this blog ahead of taking the decorations down and cooking dinner. After all, all three lads in our house, husband included are off for the day on their bikes, so why shouldn’t I do what I want to do?

Ninebanks Youth Hostel
Ninebanks Youth Hostel

Today my self-care was to get out of the house and go and see my friends Pauline and Ian who run the Ninebanks Youth Hostel and were having a coffee morning. I find it so easy to stay indoors and not drive out to visit people, and that in itself can cause me to go into a downward spiral. I do need to get out and see friends, as living down a country lane although beautiful, can be isolating. If I hadn’t gone out, I would have missed this beautiful rainbow, and Pauline and Ian’s excellent coffee and homemade biscuits.

Rainbow over Northumberland
Rainbow over Northumberland

Yesterday I made a teapot, at a most enjoyable workshop up at The Sill, with Dianne from Muddy Fingers Pottery. Granted, it cost money, but I’ve been saving all the money I would have spent on booze to give myself treats like this. I’m looking forward to another moment of self-care when my teapot has been glazed and fired, and I can enjoy my first cup of tea from it.

Teapot made with Muddy Fingers Pottery
Teapot made with Muddy Fingers Pottery

What is good for one person, might not be good for another, but I feel it is vital to put ourselves first. I think women in particular can be conditioned to put everyone else before themselves, but this year, I am going to be consciously thinking of how I can take care of myself on a daily basis, however big or small these acts of self-care may be.

Thank you for reading my blog this week. I’d like to say I’m going to write every week, and that is my intention at the momnet, but I’m not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions, so they may be more sporadic.

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Here is last week’s blog in case you missed it: Happy New Year 2020

In October, I wrote about how I was feeling on the Creative Writing MA and likened it to being ‘At the Foot of a Mountain’. It was as if I had arrived in Switzerland; with one module I was relaxing into the process of being a writer, wandering around the green pastures of the foothills, but with the other module, I felt as if I was at the rock face, unsure of where to put my hands and feet, and watching others who were already approaching the summit.

I had a lovely email back from my tutor, Lars Iyer, who told me to relax, and that ‘academic’ learning would soon become easier. He said they took mature students such as me on the course on purpose, as we had so much else to offer than academia. I took heart from this, and as I eased off the self-doubt, I relaxed, found my confidence, and I have indeed begun to find academic study easier.

We have been learning in our Prose Workshop about the Freytag Triangle for plotting a short story and have been asked to write a story where the protagonist comes to the realisation that she has learnt something. We were to write from experience, safe in the knowledge that the best writing has lots of detail and writing from memory can provide this.

I was over the moon to hear that writing our own life stories was not only allowed, but positively encouraged. I have on the past, held back from writing some of the episodes of my life for fear the regurgitation of them would upset family members. A lot of my past is not pretty. However, I’ve written without the fear of publication, and have started with a story that goes back to a very painful period in my life. I was in my early teens when I started drinking, and going on dates with men that were a lot older than me.

It has been cathartic to write the tale. I heard the other day, that trying to stuff our past down is like trying to stuff a beach ball under the waves; an analogy I can relate to very much. Our own stories are very much part of us, and we must learn to have them walk alongside us, without shame.

I’ve been working with a therapist for some time now, and it was she who first suggested I go to uni to do my MA and learn to write. She has also suggested that pain comes before shame and has shown me how I have learnt to literally stuff down my pain by using food and alcohol, unable to speak of my wounds.

Writing my story is releasing something in me, and by acknowledging the pain without shame, I am starting to move forward. I made the decision four weeks ago to give up alcohol. Those who know me well, know what a big drinker I have been, and this had had some pretty dire consequences. I have so many tales that would make your hair curl, and who knows, maybe I will write them all down one day, but then again, I may not. I haven’t decided if I should write my story, or let it be and move on.

The alcohol free life has been a revelation. I had no idea I could feel this good all anxiety has gone out of the window; my relationships are already better; I have more energy and am sleeping better; I am losing weight and my skin looks great!. I am getting support from Janey Lee Grace and The Sober Club, and have been listening to lots of ‘quit lit’ and podcasts. I’m hoping that I will be alcohol free for the rest of my life, although I do realise that at 27 days, I am very much at the beginning of my journey. I have a book title in mind for my own ‘quit lit’ – ‘Sex, Gin and Chocolate Cup Cakes’ – but have not made up my mind if I’m brave enough to write it. Who knows, maybe a year down the line I will be?

Giving up alcohol had given me the confidence to finally cash in the voucher Tim had given me for my last birthday for a flying lesson. My anxiety levels were far too high to even consider it before. It was amazing, and as I soared over the beautiful Northumberland countryside, I felt freer than I have done for years. I am flying high!

Flying over Alnwick, Northumberland

I won’t be sharing the short story about my teenage self with you at this point in time. However, watch out for a Christmas Short Story I’ve written that I’ll share with you all next week.

Thank you for reading my blog.