Where All the Ladders Start

 

Where All the Ladders Start

 

 

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

 

W.B Yeats, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, verse I.

 

Here is a post intended to be encouraging to you if you have had or are currently managing mental health problems, but want to write; a post about what I do and what I’ve done; about how mental health problems prevented me from writing, but how I’ve tried to engage them in the process – and also how they’ve become subject matter. And when I started writing this new post I thought, as I have done before, of this Yeats poem, above.

What is my theme? What do I write about? How do I write about it and follow a process?

A lot of it comes from my heart. What I have endured psychologically. Certainly, I have drawn on events, but also method of survival, which involved reading, reflecting and sustained flights of fancy. I am not currently supported by the mental health service, but they saved my life and my therapy, post breakdown, two kids and a new baby in tow, led to my first book in the end. That’s because I was stronger, but also because I began to see that I’d used books, reading and my imagination for survival. And if I’d done that, why should I not try writing, too? All those things were teachers, surely?

Recent events and also mistakes I have made have meant that I now want to speak more euphemistically about my personal history, at least for a while, so let me only say that I came into adulthood thinking I was a terrible thing, incapable and weak and that I could do little or no good. Although, as I will tell you in a new piece on books as saviour next year, it was reading that sustained me, it took me a long time to feel that I deserved to write and be read. Does that sound odd to you?  Eventually, there were choices I made which were empowering. How I parent my boys, how I am as a guardian of others, as a young people’s mentor and mental health advocate and what I think about, watch for and think about when I teach and tutor. And now, as I aim to do in my life, I do in my writing, increasingly a raison d’être for me. I flip the bad bits and think, ‘Hmmm bad thing. Could I pop you in a story somehow?’ I think the reason I am so keen on writing gothic and weird fiction is because, to my mind, I lived it, every trope. I hope I make you smile a bit in writing that!

There will be genes and personality in there of course, but clearly my early experience bears a logical link to mental health problems. I’d lie awake for hours as a child, ruminating thoughts, frightened. It was reading that saved me. I think that tumbled me into OCD, depression, generalised anxiety and dissociative episodes. I am free of the OCD now, largely free of depression, but my anxiety levels can skyrocket, and I have never got on top of the dissociation that occurs, so I try and think of it as my brain having tried to protect me when I was younger because these reactions have been going on forever. I say, childishly, Good brain; clever brain; thank you, my darling. Like a kid; looking back to that scared little girl and giving her a cheery affectionate punch on the arm from big Me. Ah, if you are wondering what dissociation is, here is the NHS page: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dissociative-disorders/ It is not fun; it gets colossally in the way of my life, but having not solved it, I try to find some seed of hope or creative purpose in it if I can. I can’t always, of course!

At the time we meet, I am doing edits for my third novel, Saving Lucia, which you can read next April; my first two books, novel and novella, are between publishers – and I am not going to lie; there are gains and losses in publishing and this has been a tricky thing to navigate; there will be an announcement on my first short story collection very soon, I have another novel and a second volume of short stories (I have to choose vocabulary carefully here so as not to give away details)…under consideration and I am half way through another book, a novella. I’ve also got short stories, features, poems, narrative non-fiction and essays in various publications and still to come. I notice, above all, that key themes emerge: of memory and trauma; flights of fantasy and imagination; books coming to life; myth, legend, a living landscape – and the latter is important, because just as much as I loved reading, I loved the natural world and saw it as a storyteller; I saw landscape and animals as voiced and intensely beautiful, often ignored. This is something I am writing about later today. I wish I could tell you what that is, but all in good time.

And…

While I had written features and articles before, I had not written anything else at all until early 2015, a little while after I had my breakdown and the first truly effective piece of therapy I had received. You might be interested: CAT – cognitive analytic therapy, over the course of a year on the NHS. And now my writing – whole novels – is coming out like a torrent and with relative ease and I am convinced this is because it was waiting all this time until the moment I committed words to paper. Which was, incidentally, after the school run one morning and I caught myself by surprise and just sat down and wrote. That was it. It’s weird: I’ve written anything from ten words to 20,000 words in a day. It is like I am catching up, and the reason I procrastinated is because I had so little confidence, because balancing mental health problems with three kids, partial care of more, teaching, mentoring and the rest of life – like cooking and filling in forms; painting the windows and so on; you know – well, it took everything I had. It still takes everything I have, every single day. I am exhausted today because I’ve had some bad nights: I wake up in shock, my system super-charged. It is manageable, but we have never quite managed to fix that, either. When I am not asleep, I am immediately awake, alert, ready; facing threat and challenge. I do not remember a time when my life was not like that.

But still I write, and don’t you worry about the tyranny of writing every day. If you cannot write, think. You’re at work.

That Yeats quotation at the top. What got me into writing long-form was thinking about the strategies and imaginative techniques I had used, for as long as I could remember, to deflect panic and fear. I had abiding relationships with characters in books and when I say ‘relationships’, I mean that they became as imaginary friends; the books (I moved on to song and film so that, at one point, my best friends were Albert Camus and Dolly Parton and there’s a yoking). I found relief and solace in words and scenes and imagined places. It was comforting and enlivening, and I didn’t tell anyone about it. Ever. I also had lines from poems I liked and pages from books that I would recite at some length when I felt frightened at night.

In late childhood, having been convinced by that point that I was the bringer of bad things, a sort of weird little kid who couldn’t help but cause harm, I can recall roots of things; weird reactions coming in that seemed to set me apart, at least to my mind, from the other kids I knew; for example, the dissociative experiences I still have today when I am not sure who or where I am or that the world around me is real. It’s like…I can see my toes, all pinked-up in their flip flops there, but I cannot compute that these are the same toes that will beat a path to my door. I don’t entirely recognise the world or people about me and I feel unsure of my edges, or as if I am above myself, or to one side. My life is full of odd experiences because of this kind of thing, and I should probably note that the dissociation is a bit more complicated too, but maybe we can talk about that face to face one day? And also, there is more to it in positive terms: because in the roots of such fear as a child and as a teenager, there must have been such resolve and, ultimately, a pretty powerful imagination and creativity. No-one told me; I just thought it was survival, and then, like I said, I started writing a few years back and it was like…in my head was a word hoard; from my fingers came story after story and I have never had writers’ block. Not for a second. It’s freedom.

It is intoxicating.

I hope so much that it can be of use to others.

And I want to say that if this is not your experience, don’t worry. And don’t ingest as truth that you cannot live a creatively fulfilling or exciting life because you have mental health problems. Just find your writing foothold gradually and learn to hear your voice. Because the last thing I mean is to make you question why your lived experience of chronic illness or mental health problems has not made it that you’ve coughed up a load of books like it did for me. That’s because you’re you. Listen to them, your precious thoughts and reveries, doubts, oddities, the lot: mine your experience.

I quoted a favourite poem of Yeats at top; now I quote its last verse.[1] I remember it when I think of the things lost and hurt and still painful. I think of the place where the ladders start and imagine that; for strategy in life, but also inspiration in writing. I hope this makes sense to you.

 

Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

 

If you are struggling, you are not alone. If you worry that your writing is no good, you are also not alone. Rejected? You’ve survived worse, so back on your feet. If you can, find your tribe and your tribe can be online because I understand that health or funds or difficult feelings may mean you cannot get to a writing group. We are here! Find us on twitter and please don’t be afraid to start conversations and ask questions, because the writing community is welcoming and enormously helpful. And also, if you are managing difficult circumstances in your life, I bet you can write a book, or a poem, a story,  if you read and think and try and plan and cross it all out and start again. Because I also bet you’re hugely courageous and that you have a rich imagination.

Why not just start, or steel yourself to carry on? And remember that, each step of the way, I shall be rooting for you.

Love,

Anna.

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43299/the-circus-animals-desertion You can see the full text of the poem here.

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Updating, writing, news and a scholarship

Follow me on twitter https://twitter.com/BookwormVaught 

Hello all.

I am just in the process of updating this site so that the rolling twitter feed is engaged and I will also be producing a newsletter. I’m gathering steam – so it’s about time.

I have just finished edits on my second book, novella, The Life of Almost. This will be out on August 31st with some events local to me. If you’d like to invite me further afield to do or share in an event, go ahead. That would be lovely. Also, if you would like to review the book, great.

You can order the book here, from the press website or buy through a lovely indie bookshop. If they don’t stock, they can order. It is available online at both Amazon and Waterstones, but the latter is still not stocking texts by this lovely little boutique press for – I asked a manager – ‘purely commercial reasons’. Well.

http://patricianpress.com/book/the-life-of-almost/ That’s boy Almost on the cover; he’s reading on the sand with a brace of mermaids…

The Life of Almost, by Anna VaughtPublished August 31st, 2018

 

 

This is a dark comedy set in Wales and a spectral reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Almost is a boy, brought up by his sister, Perfection. He is shrouded by bereavement and surrounded by the hauntings of his family’s undead. He plays in the sea caves, visits graves, amongst mermaids, longing mermen, morticians, houses that respire and a poltergeist moss that grabs your foot. A cast of family and friends drawn from sea caves, the embalming table, the graveyard and the dark Clandestine House, which respires heavily and in which time has stopped. And like Pip, he sings into the sea and likes to tell stories – the key theme of the book which is the story of his life, his struggles and triumphs. He is thwarted in love but understands – the night he meets a ragged convict, for the convict is a merman, come on land – that he has deep and commanding powers. 

A substantial extract from the first chapter of the book is published on the 25th of May in New Welsh Reader. You can navigate to information on that from here:

https://www.newwelshreview.com/ Cover of NWR issue 116

Next month, two of my (short) short stories are published in volume two of The Shadow Booth, a great place to read weird and eeried fiction. Boom.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-shadow-booth-vol-2-books-horror#/

I have applied for a Gladstone’s Writer if Residence slot for next year because, reader, day job, three kids, assorted other folk to look after, books three and four to edit and A RESIDENTIAL LIBRARY OOOOOH. Fingers crossed for me?

I mean look at this place? https://gladstoneslibrary.org/events/writers-in-residence I am determined to book a stay there if I don’t manage a writer in residence slot – it is, I know, very competitive.

Also, my husband and I are sponsored a weekend ticket for The Literary Consultancy’s Get a Job in Publishing weekend course

https://literaryconsultancy.co.uk/2018/03/get-job-publishing-sponsors-showcase/

and I just did the same for the Bare Lit Festival and it has gone to a wonderful home: you know who you are! Have a wonderful time xxx

http://barelitfestival.com/

Sponsoring the ticket for TLC led me to write this blog post for them; it’s about writing a book when you have no time and managing self doubt as you do it. Here:

https://literaryconsultancy.co.uk/2018/04/managing-self-doubt-write-book-dont-time/

It begins…

am in my early days of my writing, so you are not looking at someone who is a seasoned professional.

I’ll tell you what I am.

I am a quick learner; I chat and make contact very quickly. I am acquisitive of information, always reading, thinking and noticing. In a way, I am always working. What I thought was not possible has turned out to be something rather different. Not easy exactly, but more accessible than I had managed. And I seem to have written a good deal.

In late summer 2014 I sat at the kitchen table and started typing a question. That question became the first line of an autobiographical novel. That first book was published in March 2016. I realise now that twenty months from first line to publication is a bit of a clip, but didn’t know it then because I was so naive. I do think, for what it’s worth, that naivety is underrated. My second book comes out this summer (2018), the third is placed for 2020, and the fourth is going straight to an agent and I want you to cross everything here. I am also pitching something non-fiction collaboratively with a much finer writer than I (if she reads this; don’t argue) and working on pre-publicity for the second book. At last count I have also published two poems, a very short memoir, reviews, features, guest blogs, short stories, and creative non-fiction. Flash fiction is on its way. I think in all I’ve published twenty or so pieces across journals and magazines, web and print. I’m quietly increasing my stock; my ‘profile’. No-one told me to do this. Again, it’s that naivety. I just thought, ‘Give it a go,’ rocked up and started pitching. And it worked. I also found time in that period for some rejections, lost manuscripts, and serious faffing about when second and third books were written to time for someone who then rejected them with a form letter and didn’t invite me to send further work. That set me back – time-wise, mood-wise – but I’m tougher now. And I realise the passion I felt for one of my rejected projects obscured the paucity of its quality. Or marketability. The fact I had no adequate platform. Cave scriptor.

None of this is my day job.

Now, you may have seen elsewhere on this blog that I have a bursary called The Fabian Bursary. Do you think you might to like to apply for it for this September. Read this, but just something to note: I have removed all age restrictions. My background is largely secondary teaching, but I do see that as I move along with my writing, I could be supporting a broader demographic. Also, it needles me that there are age limits on things, such as literary prizes and funds. Because so many people come to writing – or study – later. Because of lack of confidence, physical and mental health problems, caring responsibilities, prejudice or poverty. So this is a gift. It’s hopefully the gift that no-one gave to me when I was younger. You could use it for a GCSE, an A level or any creative writing project, say! xxx

https://annavaughtwrites.com/the-fabian-bursary-announcing/

Right: what else have I done. Creepy memoir – NOTE MEMOIR: ARE YOU GLAD THIS AIN’T YOU RA HA??? ‘The Shadow Babies’

http://www.theshadowbooth.com/2018/01/memoir-shadow-babies.html

Also, the few reviews I’ve done in the past few months:

http://review31.co.uk/essay/view/50/diversity-risk-taking-and-community-a-celebration-of-2017%E2%80%99s-small-press-anthologies This is about small press anthologies.

http://review31.co.uk/article/view/542/laughter-in-the-dark This is about Takeaway, by Tommy Hazard at Morbid Books.

https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/2018/02/16/he-built-a-house-and-next-to-it-a-church/ This is my review of As a God Might Be, by Neil Griffiths. This was my book of 2017.

And here my review of the late Naseem Khan’s memoir, Everywhere is Somewhere. https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/2017/12/01/everywhere-is-somewhere/

And did some co-editing on this https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/?s=my+europe Currently waiting for commissions for the next anthology from this press, Tempest, which I’ll help to edit and for which I will write a foreword. You’ll be able to follow it here: https://patricianpress.com/books/ And aren’t they pretty books? Such strong artwork.

And finally, I have a July deadline for my fourth book, The Revelations of Celia Masters (news on which will follow, when I can) and my third book, Saving Lucia – which is about the last days of the Honourable Violet Gibson who shot Mussolini in 1928 – oh and her co-patient in Northampton Infirmary, Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. Bluemoose is a wonderful press and it’s so lovely to see it in the sun for works by Ben Myers and Harriet Paige, and the work the press is doing as part of the Northern Fiction alliance. Here: https://bluemoosebooks.com/ and go and buy the book below now?

Anyway, head down now with finishing fourth book and teaching (and my own eldest is doing GCSE at the moment so it’s all go) BUT I am having a little two day holiday in London, when I get to go to the launch of this little beauty: RAISING SPARKSThere’s a launch at Waterstones Islington on June 21st and it’s pubished by Bluemoose. I was lucky enough to read a proof copy ahead of time and thoroughly recommend it to you. Here: this is a synopsis from the website of Foyles:

Malka grows up in the Old City of Jerusalem in the confines of the Ultra-orthodox Jewish community. Meandering through the narrow streets she finds herself at the door of one of the city’s most renowned and reclusive mystics and discovers her father’s top rabbinical student, Russian immigrant Moshe studying forbidden Kabbalistic texts. She has a disturbing vision of a tree of prayers growing up inside the house, and the prayers all seem to be talking to her. The prayers become a giant bird, and chase her from the house. Malka has unwittingly uncovered a great mystical gift. Kabbalists believe that since the world was spoken into existence, if they can hear and understand that original Divine language, they can use it themselves, to shape and manipulate reality. Once in a millennia, a kabbalist is born with this ability. It turns out that Malka is one of them. After a disastrous first date with Moshe, Malka flees Jerusalem for Safed where she is drawn into a cult called Mystical Encounters, run by charismatic cult leader Avner Marcus. Avner is unsettled by Malka’s authenticity, and she is not allowed to attend classes. Her only friends are former night club singer Shira, and traumatised ex-soldier Evven. Malka sets up her own mystical retreat in the woods, at an abandoned construction site. When she reveals this to Avner, he forces her to take him there and tries to rape her. Malka manages to evade him, and then burns down the cult after manipulating the Modern Hebrew word for Electricity, Chashmal

Malka heads for Tel Avi, and sleeps rough on the beaches of the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa. Here she is discovered by legendary Arab chef Rukh Baraka, who is seeking to rekindle his career by training Arab and Israeli street children to create extraordinary food for his new restaurant, the Leviathan. Malka bonds with fellow runaway Mahmoud, who is escaping the wrath of his Imam father at his “deviant” sexuality. Mahmoud reveals the city behind the city, the hidden Palestinian history of which Malka has been ignorant. Moshe has been trying to find Malka and is forced to confront some of his own demons, including the disappearance of his younger sister when she was in his care. Moshe swears that he will not lose another girl he loves.]

And that’s it for now!

Anna xx

 

 

On mentoring…

ON MENTORING
IT IS POSSIBLE YOU MAY NEED A HANKIE. I am writing quite specifically about one of my three boys; he’s thirteen.

I want to tell you about something which happened a couple of days ago to my middle boy. He likes to make things. Anyway, he’s started making an infinity table in his Man Shed. Here, above, is a photo of what an infinity table is; cool, innit? This is not his, but similar to the one he’s making, with colour change and fade from LED lights.

Anyway, I took him to see the very jolly men who run a glass cutting and fitting shop in a nearby town and they were awesome. I’d already talked to the lad about how there was brilliance and skill everywhere; links to make; you know how I go on about communities, too. Anyway. They talked and joked with him; did not talk down to him; chatted over the project; rang a friend up and got him to price the coloured film lad will need as glass overlay so the table has depth. They were warm and kind and funny.

They mostly ignored me, save for the occasional knowing wink. Spot on.

Then they cut the glass (which he enjoyed seeing) and lad told them this was not a school project; he just liked making things. And didn’t like school. They asked him to bring the finished item back to show them and, if he wanted, to stick business cards (‘Easy to make, lad’) up there in the shop – or maybe photos and they can say, ‘Yes we know someone who makes those.’ They then suggested a making price and selling price and reassured lad that this was business, pure and simple. ‘This is what you do, son. That’s how it all starts.’ I could tell he was listening, rapt, because it’s all very well mum rabbiting on about things, but our young don’t need to hear it from their primary carers (though that helps); they need to see things in action and have conversations with others in their communities. And sometimes their aspirations are killed off. It’s true. We have to so careful.

Lad hesitated about the notion of taking in a table to show them. They saw, ‘No, only if you want to, but you keep in touch and tell us how you get on.’

‘But my first table might not be any good’ says lad.

‘Of course it won’t be, son. That’s BECAUSE it’s your first one.’

They wouldn’t charge for the glass either. So I’m taking them cake and treats and a card, BECAUSE my boy LIT UP. He totally LIT UP. Because of the encouragement and because it was cool and kind of exciting. This is mentoring and it is priceless. It’s also everywhere and I do believe that. And it need not be extended, but perhaps a few meaningful encounters in which someone feels valued and that there are possibilities which they can extend with just a bit of guidance.

Now, lad is dyslexic. Yeah, lots of people are. But it makes school that bit harder; boring and tiring. What is more, I have listened to several conversations  – and I will leave the provenance unstated but should emphasise that I am not only focused on what is said in school but also in families – about how those are bright must go to university. This is what ‘doing well’ means. My hackles go up with that. As they do when my lad has been lectured about he can overcome his dyslexia and ‘go to a good university.’  I winced, too, when his older brother, my eldest boy, was recently told that there were only two jobs he’d be able to do with his A level choices. Yeah, right: like the world is not plural and various and with all kinds of jobs that exist even if you lack the vision or knowledge to imagine them. Yes, it’s tough, but get out there, talk to people. I will write more on this theme another day! I absolutely believe that going to university is not the only mark of brilliance; going to university may not a clever businessman make. Going to university does not necessarily endow you with the kindness and compassion that might transform the lives of others. I went to two – yeah, Oxbridge and Russel Group – but I don’t figure that this gives me intellectual dominion over someone else or that I am cleverer than they are: lots of thick people go to Oxford and Cambridge. AND OVER MY DEAD BODY will I hear a young person measure their worth against whether they go to university or not or be told (as I heard lad getting told) that ‘he will find his own place’ before another young person was turned to and praised for their cleverness.

What a narrow way to think or to imagine intelligence.

Then, what intelligence to lead my child forward with clear sight and kindness; with compassion.

So anyway, I was thinking that if your offspring is bored or demoralised by school, look within it – and to support staff as well as teaching staff – and look beyond it in your communities for mentoring, for people who inspire and listen to your child and who are not limited in their view of the world; who do not give advice which depresses the child or young person based on that.

We had THE BEST example of mentoring that afternoon. Mentoring is about kindness, about listening and also about being flexible – and smart – in your view of the world and in how you regard the views, aspirations and ideas of children and young people. And (my background is in teaching and a portfolio of volunteer posts as well as writing) they will teach you things too.

 

As I said, my boy LIT UP, we got back to the car and he said, ‘Oh mum. Why are you crying?’ ‘I’m not.’ ‘So ARE.’

Here: this is the project before the infinity table. A home-made tubulum (plumbing bits and salvaged wood), played with my flip flops. Something cheery for you!

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