How to survive uncertain times (or how to stop being grumpy)

This week I’ve been tired and grumpy. It feels as though there are too many things requiring my attention and not enough things filling my cup back up. I’m running on empty and I seem to have forgotten how to replenish my energy. I’m sure I’m not the only person feeling like this at the moment. I’m in Melbourne, where we are deep into our fifth lockdown for COVID, and while I’m thankful I live in a state where locking down early means that we can avoid some of the catastrophic situations that are being seen around the world or in other states, I’m tired. Is it just the current situation that is making me tired or is it the increased medication for my migraines?

Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful that I have a job that isn’t shrouded with uncertainty and my family are safe. I know many others who are struggling deeply. What I’m feeling is something that is much harder to put my finger on. I’ve been going into my workplace (school library) to work on cleaning up the library collection and supervise any students who need to come to school to study and by the time I get home, I have nothing left to give. Is it the silence of my workplace that is disconcerting?

Last year when Melbourne was in that really long lockdown, I managed okay. I woke at my usual time, wrote, went for a ride, worked, did my yoga then congregated with the other two in my household for dinner. It was okay. We had a quiet rhythm that breathed gently on us as we danced around each other. This time it doesn’t feel so smooth.

When I come home from work now, I flop on the couch with nothing left in me. My body aches, my mind aches. It’s as though everything is too much. I’m juggling my health, work, writing life, renovation plans and emails, housing for one son, housing for ourselves and I’m at the point where I’m snapping at the people I love.

Maybe I run out of spoons (What is the Spoon Theory). I’ve resisted calling myself a Spoonie as I often think that I don’t have it too bad, but my reality is that I do have chronic health conditions that impact my every day life and how I interact with the world even if I don’t look or sound sick. I forget that some others don’t have to navigate life with a filter to protect their health, that there are things they can do that I just can’t, that external things can send my body into a spin.

Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem on Pexels.com

So, how do I pull myself from the fug I’m in and fill up my cup again?

Routine

Stick to routine. It worked last time, it will work again. Keep up the writing, exercise and work. Add in self care and laughter.

Self Care

I’m not doing any. I remember my psychologist talking to me about this years ago. It’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me for many reasons. I had to come up with a bunch of things that looked like self care, then I had to make sure I was doing at least one each day. I’m not doing any at the moment and it shows in my body aches, my migraines, my tiredness and my lack of positivity. So, time for a list of things that I can do each day to release the pressure. Things like: a bath, day naps. I can’t see the phsyio who would help iron out the pain in my back and neck, but I can do my exercises.

Exercise

We all know it helps but when it’s cold and you have to force it to happen, it’s hard. I have been walking and riding to work, but I suspect it’s not enough for times like these. Usually, I go to the gym a few times a week, but I haven’t replaced that with anything for the last week. Today, I’m going to do my exercises for my knee rehab and my shoulder and neck injury. I’m also going to do a yoga session. I know I’ll feel better afterwards.

Laughter

Time to watch some comedy. I miss my improv classes that were guaranteed to make me laugh for most of the three hours. I need an injection of laughter. Any suggestions are welcome.

How are you coping? Are you tired and grumpy like me? Has this latest wave of COVID that’s rippling through the country sent you into a hermit-style spin? What are your strategies for surviving? Please tell me that it’s not only me who has hit a flat and grumpy state.

Aiming for more rejections

A few years ago I shifted my thinking from trying to get some marks on the publishing board to aiming for more rejections. It was an important shift in thinking as it forced me to understand that this publishing world is one that is full of rejections with the occasional win. There must be something in the wind about this thinking again as my email inbox is filling up with others thinking about artistic rejection. Brainpickings article of Walt Whitman’s response to rejection sent me on a pathway thinking about the resilience that I need as writer.

A number of years ago, I wrote a speculative fiction for a young adult readership. I put my very brave pants on and fronted up to the Australian Society of Author’s Literary Speed Dating with my two minute pitch ready. I sat in front of my desired publishers and blurted my pitch out. Two publishers told me that it sounded interesting and that they would like to see it when it was ready. I left the event a bundle of energy and excitement. Fast forward about six months that were fraught in non-writerly but more personal ways and I sent an email to one of the publishers (still don’t know why I didn’t send it to the other). He responded quickly asking for the first hundred pages. Soon, he asked for the rest. I wasn’t as confident with the rest of the manuscript and life was pretty chaotic at home…so this part took a while. When I sent it to him with great apologies for the time delay, he thanked me for sending it. After some nail biting time, he responded with a short email thanking me for sending it, but it wasn’t for their list at the moment.

I read that as complete rejection. That my manuscript mustn’t have been good enough. In hindsight, it wasn’t. It just wasn’t for that publisher.

I worked on it more, then saw that an agent was looking for young adult manuscripts, so I quickly sent an email. She responded immediately asking for more. I sent the manuscript through and after a period of time, she responded with a feedback on it saying that she’d be keen to see it again if there were further changes. On my first five reads of her email, all I could see was that it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t until I showed a writer mate the email that I was able to see that she was keen to see it again.

I worked on it more (again) while working on my current manuscript (adult readership, literary historical fiction). When I had the historical fiction in a place that I thought I was happy with, another writer mate introduced me to a literary agent and I sent it in the hope that I’d be picked up. I wasn’t. The manuscript wasn’t ready. Stories take time, hopefully like all good things. I keep telling myself that, but since that rejection I have made some major changes to the manuscript that I am sure enhance it. The daughter’s voice found me and begged to be included and I have loved what she has brought to the story. I have now finished another draft of it and am anxiously waiting to get feedback on it from a manuscript assessment. I am petrified that it is rubbish, even after six years of work on it.

I like the Brainpickings quote from Jeanette Winterson with ten tips on writing to soothe me during this time as I play with new words for a new manuscript:

1. Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.

2. Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.

3. Love what you do.

4. Be honest with yourself. If you are no good, accept it. If the work you are ­doing is no good, accept it.

5. Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went in the drawer it will be just as bad when it comes out.

6. Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect.

7. Take no notice of anyone with a ­gender agenda. A lot of men still think that women lack imagination of the fiery kind.

8. Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.

9. Trust your creativity.

10. Enjoy this work!

(Brainpickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/09/05/jeanette-winterson-10-tips-on-writing/)

So, I’m moving forward. Writing more. Distracting myself from waiting to hear from the manuscript assessment. Knowing that some stories take a long time.

And in all of this, I am sending things out as it takes a heap of rejections as a writer. I’m aiming to increase my rejections this year in the hope it forces me to be brave, ambitious and creative…and resilient.

Sitting in discomfort

Discomfort is never a great place to be, but life is teaching me that it is also okay to sit with it. The school holidays are about to end and while the first week felt full of things that I wanted to do, this week I have felt like I have concrete boots on and am unable to get anything done that I had planned to do. Maybe it’s also a bit of a combination end-of-holidays blues and an overachiever to-do list. I know that last week, I relaxed into the week and enjoyed the lack of deadlines that it held. This week, I’ve felt time and life press in on me.

Poor Bella with the cone of shame

My desk is covered in books, papers, ink bottles, headphones, pens and pencils. I’m surrounded by a bunch of half-finished things not only on my desk but also throughout the house. External things have pressed on me with a breakup of two young people very close to my heart, a farewell of a young man only at the start of his adult life, a friend and neighbour’s dog being hit by a car moments after speaking to me, a neighbour hitting my car at the supermarket, an abscess on my dog’s foot rendering her incapacitated and stuck with a cone on her head for a week, trying to find accommodation for my son in a country town and for us our impending renovations and a few days and nights with high level migraine attacks. They have been things that all on their own would have been okay, but the accumulation of them feels heavy. They’ve reminded me of the times that I’ve lived with a high level of stress while managing others through very difficult periods of serious mental ill-health episodes. It’s the contrary feelings of the fast-heart beating thinking of others’ struggle mixed with a malaise that is hard to shake.

I know that if I go to the gym, I will feel better but when I am too overtired from the migraine attacks that have kept me awake or from the dog who can’t understand why she has a cone on her head and wants a drink but keeps tipping the bowl over. So I don’t. Instead I wander around picking up things then getting distracted and starting something else. It reminds me of when the kids were little and I struggled through days and nights with migraine attacks, lack of sleep and the feeling that these tough days would never end.

But they do end. Bad times end. Discomfort ends.

As I remind my friends who are going through tough times, or supporting others going through tough times (which also equates to going through tough times), the sun always rises again. In the most difficult times that I’ve been though (and there have been many over the years), I have learnt to sit with this discomfort. That the discomfort ends. That I can help myself out of it. That the sun will rise again tomorrow. There are a few things that I have done in the past that have helped and I know they’ll help again. Maybe they’ll help you.

Golden Bokeh

Tiny golden moments

  1. Find three tiny little things that were good, golden, each day. They don’t need to be big at all.
  2. Write them on a piece of paper.
  3. Put the piece of paper in a jar.
  4. Refer back to them any time you think there is nothing okay.

There is always something that is good in each day, even if it is that the air was fresh, or the water hydrated you. It helps to turn the thinking away from the negative. This process saved me when I wasn’t sure if my son was going to survive many years ago. Today, for instance, my tiny golden moments would be that I had fun writing a new scene, that I joined the Writers Victoria Live Write session and stayed on to chat with others after the half hour and that the sunset was beautiful.

Music! Sweet, sweet music

Many years ago when I was young and had no idea what was ahead of me, I sat in a room with a bunch of other musical people who were all there to audition for places in the Music Therapy program at Melbourne Uni. I had studied music during my VCE and was the only student in my school studying music in my final year. I loved music: playing it and listening to it. I also loved the idea of helping people. Music Therapy seemed to be a wonderful combination of these two ideas. In that waiting room, though, I realised that I didn’t have the same level of passion as the other students there. It seemed to me (as a young seventeen-year-old) that they had what it took, that their whole worlds were music. I didn’t wait around for my name to be called for the audition so I will never know if I did have what it took. I guess I didn’t believe in myself enough back then. Fast forward to when my mum was dying. One of the services offered to her was music therapy. I sat with her that day the therapist came. Together, Mum and I listened to the beautiful music that the woman played for her and as I held Mum’s hand, I felt her relax. That’s the power of music.

Over the years I have often used music to shift a mood. It acts like magic. Music is powerful. I love how I can be in a flat mood but when I put something upbeat on, it lifts me.

Move it!

I won’t be the first person to say that exercise helps lift mood, change feelings. I may be in the minority to say, however, to say that it also helps me shift a migraine attack. It is often the very last thing I want to do when I have a migraine attack, especially when it is a particularly forceful one. Exercise also can bring a migraine attack on for me, or if I am on the edge with a migraine and then exercise, it can bring on a diabolical one that is really hard to shift. But if I gently exercise with a migraine attack by going for a quiet walk, or moving my legs on the bike with no resistance, it can help shift it.

I pretty much never get excited about going to the gym, but I know when I’ve been I feel powerful and want to go back and do it all over again. I vow that I’m going to do it on a regular basis…then forget that euphoria that exercise has brought on and start finding excuses about why I don’t want to go. . I know I’m not the only one or we’d all be fit beans. I think I’m getting closer to the remembering though. Some little hacks I use are having my gym bag ready to go at all times and planning for it so that I get there.

How do you pull yourself from a state of malaise or from feeling overwhelmed?

Creativity, Play and Rest

Hello!! I have stumbled back to my blog like a stranger. It was doing a round of submissions that sent me back here as I needed to remind myself of my publishing background. Writing that out seems ridiculous. I know what I’ve had published—and what isn’t—but I’ve been so long into my current manuscript that I have neglected doing any updates here.

Where have I been? What have I been doing?

Since my last post, I have written eight Tinyletter newsletters that have included all sorts of things like poetry, having a knee operation, coping with the lockdown blues and some other things. While it’s been good to have a bit more interaction with these newsletters, it does make it look like nothing is happening here. (Side note: please sign up for my newsletters here where I might write more stuff)

Trust me, stuff is still happening in my writing and creative life.

I am still writing. At the end of May, I finished the seventh draft of my manuscript that has had many names during its various iterations but is now going under the name of Before, After, Now. It’s historical fiction based on my ancestor who was sent to Australia in 1787 for stealing a pot, a kettle and an iron. Her husband of the time pointed his finger at her in the court and said, it was her. Doesn’t take much imagination to guess at what kind of person would do that to his wife and, in turn, his one-year-old son who died on the ship before it even left Portsmouth Harbour. She had a wretched life and the work I have had to do to get the story to its current state other than all the research I have done over the last six years is to work out why each of the things I know about her happened. Why was her daughter in the first orphanage in Sydney? Why did she work for a short time as a cook in the orphanage? Why did the father of her daughter leave the colony and never return? Why did she never take his name, did she never give her daughter his name? Why did she die where she did, when she did?

The current iteration of the manuscript feels (for now) like the one that is right. It has three points of view: Ann, her daughter Elizabeth and the narrator. Finding my way into Elizabeth and her view of the world really opened up the story for me, and hopefully for the reader. Soon, it will go on its merry way to have a manuscript assessment when I will find out the truth about the manuscript.

This is The Most Scary Moment for me with it. To this point, no one else has read it in its entirety and while it is easy and less sick-making to keep it like this, it will never get published without someone else’s eyes on it.

When I first finished this draft I felt like I was cast out into a rubber tube in the middle of the ocean. I was so used to my routine of getting up every morning at 5.45 am to work on the manuscript, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Initially, I took the time to sleep in as I was very tired. It took a lot of out of me finishing this manuscript. Then I resumed my early mornings and did yoga.

Now it’s school holidays, I’m back at my computer doing writing admin, cleaning up my files, writing a synopsis and chapter summaries and looking at what else is going on in the writing submission world. This week I wrote a new short story and edited another and it felt great to play with new words.


Play

‘If you don’t know how to play, then you will not be creative.”

John Cleese

John Cleese outlines what he sees as the five factors of creativity (the below is from the Brainpickings post about this):

  1. Space (“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”)
  2. Time (“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”)
  3. Time (“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate the discomfort of pondering time and indecision.)
  4. Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)
  5. Humour (“The main evolutionary significance of humour is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”)

I’ve learnt over time that it’s great for my creativity to do things that put me out of my comfort zone. Years ago when I felt like writing was difficult I took up learning jazz piano. While I am still not a piano player, it was the impetus that I needed to get back into writing after I’d learnt that it was okay to be terrible at something but to still have a go. So when my friend Katherine Collette (author of the very funny The Helpline and another book that will be published next year—watch this space…) told me a few months ago she’d enrolled in an improv course, I was interested. I knew it would be difficult coming off the deep editorial stage of manuscript I’ve lived with for the last six years to try to write anything else. I’m now six weeks into the course (if we ignore the three weeks intermission when we couldn’t do much due to yet another COVID-19 moment) and it has been a brilliant thing to add to my life. I spend three hours laughing a week while I get to make stuff up on the spot and learn that it’s okay to fail! What a brilliant thing for all of us to learn! It’s given me the energy I need for the new story I’m working on that is all fresh words and needs no editor’s eye on it. It’s the moment in writing when anything and everything is possible. It’s a wonderful playful stage of writing when I learn who’s who and what’s what and where’s where. Write it all out and delete it later (after I’ve saved it as Draft Zero). It’s also given me more confidence standing up in front of strangers and talking. Last night I put my name in the Jam Jar and bravely stepped onto the stage when my name was called and Made Stuff Up! On the spot. While I was nervous to start, my nerves fell away as I immersed myself in the experience. And I laughed. A lot. Laughter is so great for the soul.

My rough drawing of Little Red Riding Hood’s map

A couple of weeks ago I did a Queensland Writers Centre online workshop on map making with Kathleen Jennings. It was such a wonderful, playful and fun session that reminded me how much I love drawing and illustration. I have been playing with this since and again, it reminds me that playing helps awaken creativity. I’m amazed (but probably shouldn’t be) at how much energy playing gives me. It’s been so much fun drawing badly and allowing that to be okay.

Rest

On the last day of last term when we were all desiccated shells of ourselves, our principal sent all the staff something about rest that resonated with me. She talked about the research and work of Dr Saundra Dalton-Smith where she establishes the seven types of rest: physical, sensory, mental, emotional, creative, social and spiritual.

“We have a very limited view of what rest is. We think of rest as the cessation of activity—just stopping. But it’s actually practising restorative activites.”

Dr Saundra Dalton-Smith
Image from https://advice.theshineapp.com/articles/the-7-types-of-rest-you-need-to-actually-feel-recharged/

I hope you can find time to rest, play, read or write. I’d love to hear from you to hear how this lands with you. Please leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you ASAP.