‘Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded’ Gautama Buddha
Thoughts are just that: thoughts. They’re not facts or artefacts. They’re not necessarily true or correct. But, boy, are they powerful!
I believe storytelling and listening to stories is part of what makes us human and it’s something people have always done. We do it to make sense of our world and how we experience it.
As a writer, stories are my thing. I love the whole process of crafting a story from initial thought to finished novel.
As a reader, I love to be told a story, to be transported, taken out of myself by someone else’s thoughts and words.
But there’s an aspect of storytelling that’s not so positive and not so enjoyable. And that can be the uncrafted, unedited stories we tell ourselves.
The Story Goblin
Many of us succumb to the goading and taunting of our own thoughts. I know I do. The story goblin in our heads knows all our baggage, all our triggers, all our awful ‘what if’ scenarios and it’s all too ready to jump right in there and take control. Next stop: horrible, out of control anxiety or a drastic drop in self-esteem.
However, if we’re aware of what’s happening, then we can take back a bit of control. Otherwise those powerful stories will sabotage us and may seriously affect our mental health.
While it’s true we can’t control everything that happens, we do have some say in how we react.
So if you make a mistake, or get hurt, or are presented with a stressful or unfamiliar situation, it’s healthier not to go off on one. Don’t follow that goblin down the route to ‘I’m such an idiot,’ or ‘I should have expected it and I deserve it’ or ‘this is going to end unbearably badly’.
Edit or delete
So what can we do? How can we get a bit of control over the stories we’re telling ourselves? Well we can:
*STOP. RECOGNISE WHAT’S HAPPENING. BREATHE. PUT THAT NEGATIVE STORY AND THE GOBLIN IN LIDDED AND LOCKED BOX. LEAVE IT THERE.*
Redraft and reshape
Show yourself some compassion. Forgive yourself. And don’t have catastrophe mode as an automatic, default setting. Be realistic.
We can’t prevent our thoughts. We all have them. We can’t function without them. But we can employ an inner editor. We can decide on what are the useful, truthful and inspiring stories. Yes we can still get stuff wrong, hurt or be hurt, find ourselves in scary situations, BUT we are also the editors of the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. We can control our reactions. We can shape our own stories.
Are you stalked by a version of the story goblin? Or have you learned ways to be the active author of the stories you tell yourself?
So, first post of the new year is here. But you’re okay, this will be a resolution free zone.
I’ve done the usual looking back, looking forward thing that January’s two-faced namesake, Janus, seems to impose on us. It’s as good a time as any to stop and reflect on the good and the bad in our lives, to be grateful for all the positives and to accept, or at least come to terms with, the negatives.
However, keeping reflection and resolve to a once a year activity, dictated by a number on a calendar doesn’t really work for me. And setting big annual goals for radical changes to your life just seems to be setting yourself up to fail.
That being said, I do believe in making small beneficial changes, and I do believe in setting myself challenges. I do take time to reflect on my life and to plan, just not on a January-only basis.
Small changes have more chance of becoming new habits and can on a cumulative basis become big changes. For example, let’s say you want to get fit, but are starting from a level of (in)activity that a sloth can only aspire to. Deciding to take a brisk walk for half an hour once or twice a week is more likely to be doable, and to lead to more frequent and intense exercising as you become fitter, than deciding to take up running several miles a day from a sitting start from the first of January.
The challenge in the above example should be to improve fitness levels from where they are now and the changes are small, possible and cumulative. Nothing hinges on one big event such as running your first marathon and there’s room for degrees of success. It’s not the all-or-nothing that New Year’s resolutions tend to be.
Of course there are always the challenges we don’t choose, ones thrust upon us, ones which floor us. But even in these circumstances it tends to be the small resilience-building steps that get us through and out the other side. More than ever it’s important in dark times not to impose a rigid timetable for recovery or improvement but to value the smallest of steps and the shortest of respites.
My one over-riding, self-imposed challenge is the one I set up many years ago following kicking cancer’s ass, and one which I hope will persist for many more, and that is to opt wherever possible to take the road less travelled.
In a literal sense this has seen me travel all over the world, several times on my own, and not always to places on the tourist route. And in more figurative sense, it has seen me give up a secure, promoted-post job and family home to move to a completely different environment i.e. to no job and from city-living to relatively isolated island dweller. It all worked out, me and the husband both got jobs and flourished. And I began to write. Ten years on, no regrets and once again contemplating a move and beginning another new phase.
Taking the road less-travelled in 2014 has seen me once more resign from a teaching post. This time to take early retirement from my thirty-six year career in order to be a full-time writer. I have a children’s book to publish, I have a new adult novel to start and I want to continue to build the blog.
My long term health challenges continue to be to improve/maintain my physical and mental health. I will continue to fight the anxiety demon and to manage the chronic fatigue. To do this, I’ll keep going with the yoga, something I began last year and absolutely love, and with trying to live more mindfully. I will cultivate the art of appreciation, continue to visit art exhibitions, go to plays and concerts, enjoy music and working in my lovely garden. I’ll keep up with the regular walks, and I’ll go to talks on all sorts. I’ll enjoy the company of family and friends and play with my grandchildren. And I’ll read, read, read.
And as well as all that, in 2015, I have a working holiday, a writers conference (details of both in later posts), and our son’s wedding to look forward to.
But, if forced to make a resolution for 2015 and beyond, it would be to keep heading for the crossroads, to keep choosing the less-walked-on path and to perch only momentarily in the comfort zone. It’s the way to keep growing, creating and LIVING!
And you can hold me to account on that as I’ll be posting on most of the above throughout 2015.
Hello and welcome to the second edition of the new look blog. Thanks for visiting.
This month, as we approach the shortest day and keep ourselves cheerful with festivals of joy and light, I’m keeping the blog as bright and positive as possible.
And, whether you’ll be celebrating a winter festival or not this month, I wish you warmth, light and good things to come.
THE BRIGHT SIDE
As I write this on a gloomy November day, having just listened to the news which was full of yet more gloom, negativity and discord, it’s not easy to maintain a positive attitude.
But I do try. I try to look on the bright side. In spite of being a worrier and being on medication for anxiety and mild depression, I do manage to be optimistic most of the time. Yes, I’m a contradictory critter.
I don’t mind the dark days too much. I quite like drawing the curtains and cosying in. I like crisp, cold days and I don’t mind the snow as long as I don’t have to drive anywhere. I try to look for the best in other people and I try to make the best of difficult situations. But, like most people, I do have moments when the glass appears half-empty.
The media saturate us with bad news – it’s what sells. We engage with it. We don’t seem able to help ourselves. And we’re programmed by evolution to react to all the possible dangers and impending disasters that are presented to us. We react. We strive to protect ourselves and our loved ones. But the threats and risks are vague, of disputed significance and sensationalised. They’re often hypothetical, but are presented as facts. It’s not surprising we sometimes feel helpless, especially if we’re already vulnerable. We may already be stressed by job uncertainty, workplace demands, lack of money, poor health, relationship problems. In such cases it’s easy to see how we can end up seeing only the worst case scenario. We can become overwhelmed and feel powerless. We then expect the worse.
On the other hand, if we’re feeling robust, in good physical and mental health and are generally resilient in the face of life’s stresses, then we can maintain a sense of control. Not only that, we can actively protect ourselves and others. We can do this by keeping ourselves fit, by having the energy to care for others, the will to share what we have, and the motivation to educate ourselves about the issues and to do something about changing or eliminating the threats to everyone’s wellbeing. By doing so, we reinforce those positive and hopeful feelings – a virtuous circle.
So, are optimism and pessimism self-fulfilling prophecies? If we’re in a good place, we’ll act for the best outcome; but if we’re in a bad place we’ll be paralysed by our expectation of catastrophe, do nothing and wait for the worst to happen.
In her book, ‘The Optimism Bias’, Tali Sharot considers this very notion. She reports that her research confirms the self-fulfilling nature of positive and negative expectations.
But she goes further. She suggests that humans seem to be wired to mostly look on the bright side. She states that while positive thinkers expect positive outcomes, and negative thinkers adopt a defensive pessimism as insurance against disappointment, it has been found that the pessimists are just as disappointed as the optimists if things don’t work out well. It has also been find that pessimists die younger often in accidental or violent ways. Sharot suggests this is because pessimists may well have a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality when assessing risk, whereas optimists will want to hang on for their foreseen good future and will be selective and protective when faced with risk.
However, Sharot also acknowledges that extreme optimism can have a dark side too. It can sometimes be the case that, for example, in considering the risks of smoking, an optimist will take the view that smoking only kills the other guy. Another example is the financier who takes extreme investment risks in the belief he is invincible and ends up facing disaster. Extreme optimism can give a person a false sense of security.
So as in all things, moderation would seem to be the key. And this is where those of us of a mildly depressive and anxious state of mind come out well. In another study quoted by Sharot, the mentally healthy came out as inaccurately optimistic, i.e. they didn’t foretell how things would be and also failed to change their beliefs in the face of actuality. The deeply depressed also made inaccurate predictions and also failed to adjust those predictions in the face of the real outcomes. But the mildly depressed were proved to be mostly realistic in their expectations.
So, moderate optimism it shall be.
But that’s not to say you should ever give up on hopes and dreams. No way. Rather you should set achievable realistic steps along the way. Good luck seems to follow hard work and preparation.
And, remember, as Sharot also says, ‘a penguin in a parachute can sort of fly’.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
Don’t despair, it’s all relative…
Here in the UK, and in the West in general, we probably shouldn’t dwell too much on the doom and gloom of political, economic and social matters. In comparison with many other parts of the world we have it easy.
Yes, many people in Britain live in relative poverty. But it’s not absolute in nature. It’s not the poverty experienced in a South African shanty town or a Vietnamese orphanage. It could be argued that poverty here is largely avoidable. We have the means to improve the lot of the poorest in our society, but no political will to do so. Instead the follies of the richest are overlooked and the plight of the poor blamed on immigrants, the unemployed and the uneducated young, the unproductive elderly.
Yes, our economy is broken and our government complacent. Yes, increasing numbers of people in the UK are dependent on food banks and struggling to pay bills as the cost of living outstrips wages. And, yes, our once enviable welfare state is a chaotic shadow of its former self.
But it is all relative. We are battling on. It’s not as hard as the 1930s – yet. We’re not facing a world war.
Many politicians are a joke –a bad one, it’s true – but most are decent and hardworking. And they are all democratically elected, albeit in an imperfect voting system, but it’s one that outstrips most in its administration and accountability. If they mess up they are accountable. If they’re corrupt they are dealt with. We also have a strong independent judiciary, free compulsory education and health care that’s free at the point of delivery.
We’re a more tolerant society than we were, although there’s still room for improvement. Many of us volunteer within our own communities. Many of us donate to charity.
But WE COULD DO BETTER. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be paralysed by despair. Those of us who are healthy, in work and living in good accommodation should be mindful of the fact that we are doing all right, but we should also channel our positive energy into improving the lives of those less well off. We should exercise our intelligence, inform ourselves of the issues, hold our politicians and the very rich to account. We must demand a fairer society and lots more reasons to be cheerful.
THE BEATRICE STUBBS NOVELS BY JJ MARSH
I’m a fan of crime fiction. I love the twists, the red herrings, the gruesome or clever crimes, but most of all I enjoy the detectives – police or private. I particularly enjoy the serial detectives, those main, crime-solving characters that I can get to know. PD James had the enigmatic Adam Dalgliesh, Lorna Hill has the captivating Simon Serailler, Ian Rankin has the irascible but likeable Rebus. And now, JJ Marsh gives us the troubled Beatrice Stubbs.
So far there are three Beatrice crime novels. They are, in order, Behind Closed Doors, Raw Material and Tread Softly.
All three are very good reads.
We first meet Detective Inspector Beatrice Stubbs of the Met in Behind Closed Doors. She has been off work for over a year following a suicide attempt, but now it’s time to get back on the seesaw, as Beatrice might say. She loves mixing her similes, a delightful quirk that Beatrice has throughout the series.
She takes it as a good sign that her boss trusts her enough to give her this particular case. It is to investigate the apparent suicides of four financiers. And to do so she has to go to Switzerland. what follows is multi-layered crime thriller that builds to an exciting and, for Beatrice, perilous finale.
The second book, Raw Material, is set in a very different landscape. This time it’s the streets of London, the Irish countryside and the beaches of Pembrokeshire. Beatrice becomes unwittingly caught up in a particularly nasty type of crime while spending a Bank Holiday in Wales with her partner, Matthew. This time it’s a friend of Beatrice’s who ends up in peril as the final twists and turns play out.
And in Tread Softly we’re in yet another setting. We’re in Spain, in the wine country of the North. As in the previous book, Beatrice isn’t actively looking for crime, but when it finds her, she pursues it. She’s supposed to be on a gourmet tour as part of a sabbatical from her job. But the sabbatical bit doesn’t last long. Before she knows it, she’s compelled to investigate some very dangerous dealings in one of the wineries.
I like that JJ Marsh’s main detective character is a woman. Although we’ve had DCI Jane Tennison and, more recently, Sarah Lund on the television, there’s been a bit of a dearth, of late, of literary detectives of the female persuasion. It’s been a very long time since George in the Famous Five, or Nancy Drew and her Hardy boys. Miss Marple and Precious Ramotswe have also been doing it for the girls but they’re not exactly up-to-the-minute or real-world-gritty.
It’s also refreshing that Beatrice isn’t a ball-breaking Jane Tennison derivative. Here we have a woman who does a tough job, but who is also living with mental health problems, is in a loving, but long-distance relationship, is sensitive and not always confident. She’s credible and realistically drawn. The reader cares as much about her as about the solving of the crime.
I also like how Beatrice develops over the course of the three books. I admire the author’s handling of Beatrice’s mental health issues and of her relationships. But it’s not just Beatrice whose strongly characterised. The supporting cast of her partner Matthew, her friend Adrian, the other police officers and professionals with whom she works, and the victims and perpetrators of the crimes are all believable, three-dimensional characters.
The plotting is tight and cohesive. The level of suspense just right – subtle enough to be credible, tight enough to make the books real page-turners.
And the settings are glorious – European and UK cityscapes, beaches, mountains, seas, cliffs and farmland all are rendered in just enough detail to make the reader believe she is there, with the characters, seeing the sights, smelling the smells, drinking the wine.
JJ Marsh’s writing is clever stuff. She’s a craftswoman and an artist. For lovers of crime fiction, her books will be ideally placed on your shelves alongside Hill, Rankin, James and Larsson. The books would also make excellent TV crime dramas. You heard it here first…
The novels are published by Prewett Publishing, an affiliate of Triskele Books and are available on Amazon.
I’ve sent some ideas for the cover of the new novel off to cover designer Jane at JD Smith design and she’s going to work her magic and come up with some ideas. I’m also looking for ‘Beta’ readers who would be willing to read the manuscript and give comments/suggestions etc. It has been edited but more pairs of eyes is always a good idea. If you would be willing, get in touch through the comments section. I would send you a synopsis first so you could decide if it tickled your fancy. Basically it’s a romance. It’s one for the baby-boomer generation i.e. the main characters are in their fifties. It’s set in Skye and Israel and is about love, loss and homecoming. Next I need to decide about the route to publication. I would like to be an author-publisher, something that’s becoming more and more common. That way I retain control over the book, the schedule and the finances. But I’m a bit apprehensive about striking out alone. That’s where the organisations I mention in the next, TIPS, section come in…
I’m a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors. For an annual membership fee, Members receive excellent advice about going it alone when publishing their books. They showcase member authors’ work, offer online Q&A sessions with publishing experts and warn about the pitfalls as well as making recommendations. They’ve produced a book called Choosing a Self-Publishing Service which I’m currently reading.
Then there is Triskele. I mentioned them above as they’re the author collective which is behind the publication of JJ Marsh’s books. In their book The Triskele Trail, the founder members of Triskele share their experiences of being author-publishers. This book, available as an e-book only at the moment, is another treasure trove for nervous and inexperienced authors keen to go independent.
And finally, there’s the wonderful Joanna Penn for when I need to market the book. Joanna’s ‘How to Market a Book’ is another invaluable publication for authors – traditionally or independently published.