A slow dawning

As a young child I was told a joke* that made my friends laugh but puzzled me. I never got the punchline. Years later, I was in university (yes, that many years later) and suddenly, from out of nowhere, I began to laugh. I finally got the joke. It wasn’t funny – my laughter was at the realisation of how obvious it all was.

I recount the story to demonstrate how my brain works. Sometimes it takes a long time for me to get something which to others is obvious. In my defence, there’s a lot going on in there.

Earlier today a similar thing happened: I suddenly got what it means to be a writer – you have to write. Obvious I know, at least on the face of it, but for the last year I’ve been having a crisis of confidence when it comes to my writing ability. Almost every time I’ve sat down to continue working on my book, I’ve frozen. On the days where I have written something, I’ve ended up extensively rewriting before ultimately deleting. It’s been my main source of anxiety, which is saying something given that we’re still in the midst of global pandemic and I remain in one of the high risk categories.

This despite My Heart’s Content being longlisted for the Mslexia Memoir and Life Writing competition 2020. To be fair, the news offered a moment of respite, before the doubt crowded out the euphoria: ‘I won’t be shortlisted; I’ll never win’. I wasn’t and didn’t. Case in point. Prophecy self-fulfilled.

There’s a saying in yoga (and probably in other areas of life) that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. My teacher materialised this morning, via an email from Mslexia, featuring advice to writers from Hilary Mantel. Among her many pearls of wisdom was this:

There isn’t any failed writing. There is only writing that is on the way to being successful – because you’re learning all the time. It follows that nothing you write is ever wasted, and that to become good, and better than good, you need to write a lot.

Hilary Mantel

And just like that, something clicked into place.

To be good at piano, I practise daily. I’ve only just started so my playing is limited at best but already I can play a tune with both hands, whereas six weeks ago, I could barely play a scale.

For yoga and meditation to work their magic on my body and mind, I practise regularly. To begin with I couldn’t touch my toes and my thoughts never stopped racing. Today my body is comfortable in downward facing dog and I can comfortably sit in meditation for 20 mins (my thoughts a meander rather than a full on sprint).

It all takes practice. Regular, sustained practice. Obvious, and yet when it came to my writing, I just couldn’t make that one stick.

Until now.

I write this not to look for reassurance about my writing ability but to make myself accountable. To me. To the writer I long to be. As from today, my pledge is to write. Preferably daily but certainly as often as possible. No matter the subject. No matter the number of words. No matter the result.

Not procrastinate. Or doubt my ability.

Just write.

And to heed another piece of Hilary’s advice:

Don’t try to edit while you are writing. Your first draft is all about energy and unleashing your power. Respect the process of creation and give it space. It’s like planting a seed. You have to water it and watch it emerge and grow before you can prune it into shape.

Hilary Mantel

Finally, I’m going to celebrate the amazing personal achievement of being longlisted for a national competition by singing one of my favourite songs, loudly, and without apology.

For those who are interested, here’s the article from Hilary Mantel: What I wish I’d Known

*And finally, the joke: 

A kid riding their bike in the street:

“Look mum no hands.”

“Look mum no feet.”

“Look mum no teeth.”

Before we bring in the new

The last day of 2020. It’s been tough for most people, illness, financial insecurity, loneliness, fear. Loss of loved ones and being unable to say goodbye.

As hard as it is not to focus on all the difficulties of 2020, I wanted to reflect on the good that came out of it. The sense of community. Putting the welfare of others before ourselves. The imagination and ingenuity used to bring people together safely. The sharing and the hope.

For Paul and I we have a lot to be thankful for: though many of our friends were affected by the virus, we lost only one member from our extended family (although still one too many). Both sets of parents stayed well, despite an operation and several hospital trips. We had regular work and thanks in particular to our friends Gail and Shirish, we were never short of food.

We also had space and quiet to finally explore the experience of my transplant: the impact it had on both of us. Part of that was the publishing of my book, which opened up feelings we’d locked away, perhaps for the better at the time. Through talking about what happened we realised there were emotions deeply buried under layers of well-rehearsed anecdotes, used to divert attention from things too painful to contemplate. 

For several weeks during the production of my book, my sleep was interrupted by the image of the theatre doors, immediately before I was wheeled in for my operation, against the ghostly echo of Paul’s footsteps walking away. I would wake, shaking, heart racing in the remnants of a dream where I’d been abandoned, yet again, by Paul or my family or my closest friends. A skin-crawling fear of being ignored. Unseen. Of no-one hearing me. And on its coat-tails, guilt. Thoughts of those whose reality renders my worst fears insignificant. Of my donor and their family.

As with most things, time and talking soothed my fizzled body and mind and here, at the endpoint of a year like no other, I wanted to acknowledge, in writing and from my own perspective, the incredible resilience and kindness of those around me. For friends who wrote or called, who sent cards and texts (and penguins). Of neighbours who shared food and laughter. Of all those who gave so generously and supported so effusively the launch of My Heart’s Content. And family, of course family. Family who were there and are there. Always.

There’s no doubt the shadow of 2020 will reach long into the future, for many reasons and one in particular. But for me it was the year I published my first book. The year Paul and I fully realised the extent of our community. The year my mum began to finally recover. The year I gave my first interview as an author. A year where people actually read my words and liked them, loved them in some cases, and graciously shared their thoughts with me. A year which cemented old friendships, found new ones and reconnected with some who had temporarily gone astray.

For me 2020 was the year I transitioned to being an author. The one thing I’d always craved. A childhood dream fulfilled. The year I finally found my home.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Bring on 2021.

If you haven’t yet read My Heart’s Content and would like to do so, it’s available at: Liminal Ink

*Cover image for My Heart’s Content by Laura Donald

The joy of firsts

In a car, outside a hospital, on a water-logged autumn morning, I prepare to answer the questions sent to me for an interview in SNACK magazine. They arrived in my email inbox the evening before. Throughout the night I mulled my answers between snatches of sleep in the midst of a storm that exfoliated the root of our ancient camper van. The camper van and hospital belong to another story; the questions are about my book, the writing of it, my transplant experience and my relationship with Paul. This is my first interview as an author. My first chance to talk about my writing. With a wave to the parking attendant (I’m a regular), I slide into the passenger seat and pull out my laptop to begin.

SNACK magazine cover

Apprehension stalls my first sentence. Start, delete. Start, delete. I know I’m over-thinking. It’s not like I don’t know the answers: I wrote the book and what’s more, I lived the experience. It’s my story. Breathe. Start again. This time I let go and write as I would talk. And guess what, it’s fun.

Since my transplant I’ve told and retold my story so many times I’ve lost count. Mostly it’s to friends, family, work mates. Occasionally it’s to the press or other media. I’ve even performed parts of it, as recounted in an earlier blog. What I haven’t done much of is talked about my writing. About what or who inspires me. How it feels to reveal details of my experience, my relationship, on the page. To do so was exhilarating. Turns out I had a lot to say. Too much. No matter, I could save the overspill of words for a podcast I’d been invited to take part in a few days, this time for the Scots Whay Hae!, a website dedicated to Scottish culture.

For the podcast it’s an evening and it’s with Paul, in our living room, via Zoom. It’s also the same interviewer, Alistair Braidwood. I’m familiar with SWH! and have listened to several previous podcasts. So why the frizzle of nerves? The sensation of standing on the banks of a fast flowing river? I’ve checked to make sure I haven’t spilled anything on my shirt and my hair isn’t sticking up, yet (private joke for a few of my university friends). Inside I know why. It’s the fear of jumbling my words in the school play, of dropping the ball at third base of rounders, of tripping over at sports day, of forgetting my steps at the end of year dance show. The potential to misspeak or dry up completely.

Scots Whay Hae! website

The good news is, it was, as you’ve probably guessed, fine. More than, in fact. As far as I’m aware, I didn’t speak out of turn or inappropriately, laugh too loudly (well perhaps a little but it’s my natural laugh) or offend anyone. In fact, as with the written interview, after a wobbly start, I enjoyed the whole experience. It helps that Alistair was warm and encouraging, the questions were interesting, and Paul was there to take the slack, or surreptitiously poke me to remind me to slow the pace.

And as if that weren’t enough firsts, I also received feedback from three readers with no connection to my story. And they loved the book. One said it was the best book she’d read all year, another talked about how it resonated with her emotionally, the last about how she had been unable to put it down. What a remarkable privilege to write something and have it read and enjoyed by others.

These feelings, all of them, I hope they never go away.

And if you’re interested, below are the links to the SWH! podcast and the interview in SNACK magazine.

Scots Whay Hae! https://scotswhayhae.com

SNACK magazine https://snackmag.co.uk/read-this-months-magazine

Almost there

The few weeks since the end of the Kickstarter have been a whirlwind of tweaks, layouts and design decisions. And now it’s all done. The book cover design is finalised, the manuscript is typeset and print ready, and the e-book versions are complete. All that’s left is to send everything to the printer and wait for the book to arrive. The real-life, proper book.

Remember how it felt as a child on Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa, body tingled, eyes screwed shut, sleep elusive, willing time to go faster? That’s a fraction of the excitement simmering inside me. My Heart’s Content was a labour of love; an exorcism. It wasn’t my planned first book, nor even my preferred genre. It’s the one I couldn’t not write (double negative intentional and necessary). The end was a long breath out.

The prospect of writing memoir fascinated me – not so much deciding what to include but rather how to present it. When I arrived at the format of a day per chapter (I know, not exactly ground-breaking and yet it took months to get there), it freed me to be more creative with the content. With little experience of biographical writing, I began by reading other memoirs, across many subjects. For several weeks I inhabited the genre: from brain tumours to birds of prey. What struck me was the stylistic crossover between biography and fiction. The weaving of a story around a moment in time. None of the dry, factual text I had imagined but instead a journey into another life, a glimpse of a different world. A revelation.

“There is another side of writing a memoir for which I wasn’t prepared.”

There is another side of writing a memoir for which I wasn’t prepared. The emotional toll. Not the writing, which was almost cathartic, not even the reading of the story over and over, although there were moments where triggered memories were almost too much to bear. What I hadn’t expected was the underlying fear of those unknown readers. People with whom I have no connection, who don’t know my story, who have no vested interest in me and don’t need to be careful with their comments. What if these people don’t like it? Or actively dislike it? If it were fiction, it would still hurt but it wouldn’t be my story. I knew releasing a book into the wild would be tough but this extra dimension …

And yet.

Whatever the readers think, I’m proud of my book. I’m proud of Paul and my friends and family who helped me through my experience. I’m proud of our NHS and the care and dedication of the staff in the transplant unit of the Golden Jubilee Hospital. I’m proud of the team of professionals who proofed, edited, typeset, designed, primped and preened my book ready for its prom night.

My book’s all grown up. Time to make its own way in the world. All I can do now is let it go.

My Heart’s Content is launched on Thursday 22 October. Backers from the Kickstarter campaign will receive their copies as soon as they are ready.