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A Celebration of Many Experiences

The art of avoiding being pigeon-holed.
I found out, by chance, yesterday afternoon that I have passed my final assignment in my previous Open University module. If I have done my sums right (and I’ve done them often enough!), this means I now have a degree.

‘What is your degree in?’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘What does it do?’ I’ve heard recently. Oh, and, ‘Does this mean you can get a really well-paid job now?’ joked our 14-year-old son, who likes expensive gadgets.

What is it? Well it’s an ‘open’ degree. Because it includes technology, social sciences, psychology, health & social care, the arts, literature, and creative writing I got to choose whether to define it as a bachelor of science or a bachelor of arts. What is it a degree in? Well all of those things made up my degree, and I’m proud of that. Jack of all trades? Maybe! And what’s wrong with that?

What does it mean? To me it’s my degree in learning to learn, learning to think about lots and lots of different things. It means when I write, when I look at the world, when I talk to my children, when I make important decisions, when I read the news, when I make purchases, when I listen to the radio, etc, etc, etc… I have all this learning and thinking experience, all this knowledge, all these eye-opening lessons to draw on. I don’t believe the things that are passed to me though the TV screen or newspapers so easily anymore. I question things, I think, I see the point in finding out about things before jumping to a decision.

What does it do? It’s what it has done that counts. I didn’t start a degree with a chosen goal in mind, a particular job in mind. I didn’t even start with a degree in mind. I just wanted to know more about all sorts of things – and now I do. Things such as autism, the make-up of a family, lie-detectors, how to fiddle statistics, how to appreciate a poem… Even medical ethics!
Through the OU I have gained a Certificate in Social Sciences, a Certificate of Higher Education in Humanities, a Diploma in Literature & Creative Writing, and now, finally, I can call myself (hopefully, when my OU homepages updates) a graduate. That’s a lot of letters. And they all came as by-products – bonuses, if you like – of things I wanted to learn about anyway. I’m even glad I know how complicated a subject medical ethics is. I have thought how it relates to the losses of people close to me and my family.

‘Does this mean you can get a really well-paid job now?’ I doubt it! I want to write first and foremost – and that doesn’t pay well, if at all. But I do use much of the knowledge I have gained, and my multiple ways of looking at the world to write with insight into how complicated our heads are, how complicated accommodating differences can be, and I aim to write thoughtfully. I am inspired by what I have read and heard discussed. That’s good enough for me. I hope it’s good enough for other people… Because it’s a shame when you feel the need to explain yourself.

I’ve always had a problem with definitions. That’s why I like having a non-specific degree. I feel non-specific myself in many ways. Okay, so I’m clearly a woman and a mother and a wife… But having been born in a tiny flat in Hull in Yorkshire, spent 8 years living in the black country in The West Midlands, and 33 years living in Devon, I’m not clearly a Northerner or a Southerner; I’m just British. Having parents from different areas of the country and different backgrounds means I don’t feel of any particular class. There are teachers, miners, farmers, shop-keepers in my family – and my father was adopted. So there’s a feeling I wasn’t born into anything in particular. Being environmentally conscious and concerned more about our individual actions on each other I feel I don’t have a particularly definable political belief. I am just more left than right wing. I know what it is like to not know where your next meal is coming from and be so skinny I was accused of being anorexic. I know what it is like to have so much food that it gets wasted. I know what it is like to belong and be surrounded by people, I know what it is like to feel like a lonely outsider. I’ve seen the diversity, and sometimes nasty attitudes, within big towns and cities and the apathy and unimaginativeness of small communities.

I don’t like elitism, snobbery, inverted snobbery. Divisions, winners, losers. Labels, badges, badges of success. Status symbols. I don’t like the bitterness that can come from a feeling of difference or unfairness.

I am currently studying twentieth century literature, and if I pass that, I will have a BA Hons, sometime next year. I am pleased to mark my achievements but even more pleased about what I have gained from them. The workings of other writers’ minds and the way critics perceive them are very interesting and useful to me.

I’m just Rachel that writes and learns and lives in Devon and who likes to drink red wine, worries a lot, and loves music. I watch crap on TV, I watch interesting programmes on TV. I listen to Vivaldi, I listen to Stevie Wonder, I listen to Jeff Buckley, Dolly Parton, Oasis, Bach, The Detroit Spinners, Queen, Nina Simone, Mozart. I play the flute and the piano badly, I love singing and the feeling it gives me in my chest; if I could, I would play electric guitar. I’ve always quite fancied playing the drums. Too far? Yes, I think so.
I like to make up stories for people to enjoy and hopefully to make them think. And I now like to take photos too. I hope I never stop learning stuff. Growing is fun.

Rachel Carter BA Yeah, whatever! 😉

Memory Test

A short story/ flash fiction

They send you back in time. Sometimes you want to go, sometimes you don’t. But you don’t get to choose.
Your mode of transport arrives without warning: a word, a smell, a face, a familiar object, sometimes just a sound, and then there’s music of course.
You can be sitting eating a cheese sandwich, with the radio on, looking out of the window and
Whoosh!
Suddenly you’re back in time twenty-five years. Right where you don’t want to be and there she is coming down the stairs towards you.
‘Dog, slag. Slag, dog. Dog, dog. Slag, slag, slag. Dog. Dog. Dog! DOG!’
Sigh
That staircase. That face.
What lesson was it I was always going to? History? French? I don’t remember.

Does she go back in time too? Does she remember it with pride – how she sorted me good an’ proper and how someone behind her in the shadows baa-ed her name in encouragement?
I see her around now and then. Maybe every couple of years or so. Once, I leaned over her to get some bananas in Sainsbury’s. I needed to prove to myself that she didn’t bother me anymore. Funny how memories have other ideas though.
Bother, bother, bother.
I didn’t look at her. I’d already seen her. I walked away, thinking, ‘I hate you. I hope your tits fall off.’ But I don’t really. I just hate the memory.

And then there are the times when you slide back willingly with a smile and you’re glad that you’re there. Someone mentions ‘sandlewood’ or ‘bathcubes’. Ahhh…. Christmas stockings… I can smell them now…
I move my feet under my covers, feel the weight, hear the sound: Shrinkle. Yep – there it is, shrinkle-ing whenever I turn over. I’ll never go back to sleep now. I’ll have to sit up and just touch it. Stroke it. Lump. Bump. Scrunckle. Peanuts, apple, orange. Crinkle, scrunch. Sharp, pointy…
Burning, heavy eyes.
I’ll just lie down and wait. I know I’ll never go back to sl…

Sometimes it’s better if you go back on your own, don’t you think? Other people change it for you. They say, ‘That’s not how it happened,’ and they take you back to their memory, and it’s not how you remember it at all.

Patrick said I made the first move; said I gave him a look as I ‘sauntered’ (his words) past him to the loos.
‘I know a come on look when I see one,’ he said later.
So that was it; the rest of the evening all panned out – according to him. I’d given him a look and that sealed our fate. And we were going to end up in bed together that night.
Only, that’s not how I remember it. I don’t even remember seeing him until he came over.
A drink, a pleasant enough chat in a roomful of strangers, someone taking a welcome interest in me. The dodgy comment about ‘… all nurses…’ that I put to the back of my mind. The endless compliments that I chose to absorb gushingly and not deflect – which, of course, is what I should have done.
So, yes, I supposed it was my fault. In a way. Lonely young women shouldn’t go to bars on their own. Not like single men do.

The lawyer is wearing a short skirt, she smoothes it and walks towards me, looking down and then back up at me. We all see the relevance.
‘Am I asking for it?’ she presses me. She knows how much I’ve come to doubt myself over the years.

But I went to his house. I let him kiss me.

‘If it’s not what you want, it doesn’t matter what you are wearing. Can you remember what you said, when he started to take it too far?’

I am shaking my head. ‘Every time I see him around, it’s like I need to get away. I feel like I’m in danger. Just his face, and the fear comes flooding back.’

‘And you’ve spoken to him since?’
I nod. ‘He cornered me in a shopping centre about a year later – after I told some friends – and he told me I’d misremembered everything. Told me his friends had seen how I was “all over him.” ’

The lawyer looks like she is counting something in the air.

‘That’s six girls now who he claims have misremembered everything. Not a very memorable date, is he? Why didn’t you just go home?’
‘I was waiting for a taxi. He called me a taxi but it never turned up.’
She’s holding up a novelty Simpsons phone and pressing a few buttons.
Eat my shorts!’ says the phone. I’m sat on his sofa biting my nails. He’s laughing like an idiot.
I shudder.
‘Do you remember this?’ the lawyer is saying.
‘I do now.’ I’m desperately clutching my hard chair because it feels nothing like a sofa. ‘That’s what he used to call me a taxi.’
D’oh!’ says the phone. His breath smells of Listerine.
I grit my teeth and nod, blinking myself back into the room.
She nods back at me and turns it over. ‘No wires.’
No more questions.

Responsibility Planets

Or How do I stop my creativity becoming like Pluto?

It comes back time and time again this topic: getting down to writing; finding time, getting permission, clearing one’s head, finding peace, finding inspiration, finding a reason (or giving others – who don’t see why you do it – a reason). This is related, I suppose to my previous post: the wish to make, perceive and communicate something. And is, I think, why so many people that enjoy one art, have an interest in other arts.

Tess Daly has recently written and published a novel, I hear. I know nothing more than that, except she has a busy life and very young children. How did she do it?
I couldn’t have fitted enough creative time into my life to write a book when I had young children and I didn’t have to host a television show. In fact, I could barely stand up straight I was so tired all the time.
Now the children are at school I still only write when I feel safe from the risk of interruption. So, how on earth did she manage it?

I’ve come up with a shortlist of possibilities:

a) She cheated and had help writing it
b) It’s crap
c) She had time out and domestic help in order to think
d) She’s one of those amazing people that can write amid chaos and possibly with a completely unrelated buzz going on around her.
e) She is not human (or can cope on little or no sleep).
Or, f) A combination of any of the above.

I know I couldn’t have done things like that. Even when my kids were sleeping it was about making food, tidying up, washing, shopping lists, showering before they woke up again. Often one can’t even take a pee with little people about. My children were Jupiter when they were little – always the biggest responsibility in my solar system.

You see I have ‘Responsibility Planets’ that spin around me constantly. I’ve probably described this differently in past blog posts. In fact, I know I have. But it’s the same principle: there are things I know I ought to be doing, I want to be doing, I have to be doing, I could be doing, other people want me to be doing, society thinks I should be doing, things I have entrusted other people to do but I’m worrying about whether they will do them right, things I haven’t done, even things to think about in the future that I’ve already started worrying about.
Now… These responsibility planets should be arranged in order of size according to importance but for some reason in my brain they are not.

So how do I swat away that Jupiter-sized responsibility telling me, for example, my daughter’s swimming kit needs washing – even though it’s another week until she’ll be needing it? Or Saturn with it’s annoying little ‘You haven’t bought your Christmas cards yet,’ ringing out over and over again as it turns (Did you see what I did there? ;))

Well…. I tried other people’s ways, and other people’s advice, and guess what? It turns out I’m not like other people, just like other people are not like other people. But what I did spot were the things going on in the wider Internet community that I could slot into my life that suited me. So now I have a mercury-sized piece to write for my daily journal on my blipfoto and photo to take everyday; in January I will have a Mars-sized (or maybe even a Mars Bar-sized) small stone written every day (Yes, you WILL, Rachel) And here’s last year’s small stones, if you’re interested. And whenever the big planets swing out of the way, I write a flash fiction or a blog post. And that’s how I’m handling my planets at the moment. Sometimes I fly too close to the sun and I have a few days with scorched wings feeling empty and useless. (Just coming out of one of those periods now, touch wood) and then I’m back doing my best to duck and dive those great hulking responsibilities that just will not go away even when poor old Pluto (who was asked to leave the party and can now see things clearly from the outside) points out to me that fancy rings may be eye-catching but they are just fancy rings. Maybe he’s jealous, because he’s just like the iron these days, baby – completely out of the picture. Oh, and I have noticed how the vacumm cleaner gets jealous too and takes on the form of Uranus to grab my attention. But size isn’t everything…

So here’s my advice to me to help me be creative every day in some small way. Because I’m not Tess Daly, and there’s no one else weird like me so I’m guessing no one else needs this advice:

Keeping a Blipfoto Journal
Completed once-a-day in order to include a small amount of writing into every day and something to look back on for inspiration, or just a laugh, like a diary. Includes a daily photo that can be as artistic – or not – as I have time, energy or inclination for. Some of these have been atrocious, which actually was kind of fun in itself. I can end each day with the thought: ‘Today I’ve been creative in some small way,’ even when I’m ill.

Learning to roll with it
What’s important in life is a very subjective thing, and a tough one for me.
If I get a creative idea when I have just opened the dishwasher or turned on my hairdryer or started tidying the sitting room, or opened up an Excel sheet to do some bookwork, I should stop what I’m doing and go with the creative idea before it evaporates. The rest will wait. Housework is good at waiting and so is the mirror. Accountants and HMRC less so… Society has taught us to be too concerned with appearances. So: No getting taken in by fancy rings. If Saturn says, ‘Vacuum,’ Shout back ‘Schmackuum!’ (Oh no, hang on – Uranus was the vacuum, wasn’t it?)

Accepting there is no such thing as the perfect mother-slash-writer…
(…called Rachel Carter who lives in North Devon and writes this blog) But there is such a thing as fulfilment – which has positive knock-on effects in all sorts of directions. (take a breath here:) Seeing a mother who is not conforming to gender stereotypes and instead is looking at the world around her, and trying to make some sense out of it all in her own way before her brief time on this planet is over is better than watching a mother whirl around crying that she can’t keep up with everything and doesn’t see the point in it all. I get things wrong on a daily basis. I have regrets about what I have or haven’t done every day but I have less of a feeling of worthlessness now – which has got to be better to be around than Mrs. Weepy-‘get-out-your-feet-are-dirty-I-can’t-believe-you-all-treat-me-like-an-unpaid-cleaner’-Mop.

Keeping madness on the page and not out in public
Stifled creativity and years of suppressing natural needs is destructive. Forcing myself to do things time and time again and not obey the little light inside means that occasionally I had little outbursts of creative thoughts that Jo Public really isn’t interested in. I remember once, saying, ‘Sometimes I look out and see the view and sometimes all I see is dirty windows.’ Most people would rather you didn’t have weird little outbursts like that and may go around telling everyone you’re mad. But put it on a page and – hey presto! – You’re a writer!
(Unless of course, you’re a member of the Bloomsbury group and can just go around being arty farty all the time and ‘Bravo!’ing each other. Personally, I’d rather be able to watch Come Dine With Me occasionally and not worry about academic snobbery or keeping up a continuous persona)

Find a non-obligatory, non-judgemental, fear-free way of communicating creatively
Being part of the Friday Flash, once-a-week flash fiction community is great and – if it works for you – so are short story competitions, sending stuff to magazines, etc. But I like to throw some thoughts and words around without fear of being judged, or clashing with someone’s taste. Different opinions are often just that and can stunt creative freedom. Occasionally, the feedback I get on my stories can be unwelcome when I’m not in the mood, and I write differently when I am not paralysed by the burden of fear. I believe I write better when it’s just me being me. So getting involved in something like small stones. (See January’s A River of Stones) is a great experience, freedom, practice, discipline, for finding an individual way of looking at the world. And I think that’s important. We do all have our own individual way of looking at the world and it should flourish and not be confused by expectation, or clouded by received thoughts handed down by others. I’m guessing most people haven’t even found theirs. It’s a shame because we can all find an artist within if we give our imaginations a chance. The world would be a far better place if people used their imaginations a bit more, instead of blindly repeating stuff other people say or do without thought or good reason. Some people work really hard just to make lots of money. I find that soulless, pointless and vulgar and instead work really hard just to make sense. Oooh… Hello… I’m going off on the wrong spaceship…

So, there you have it – I mean, there I have it – my top themes for me: Regularity, acceptance, freedom, sanity (– or doing it to stop me going mad and being hell to be around), and planet-sized stereotypical conventions and guilt ducking (I must find a snappier way of expressing that one). I still hear the housework calling because I hate clutter and find tidiness, light and open spaces more inspiring than a house full of pointless piles of crap (can you hear it getting to me?) but I have to fight my perfectionist Virgo and even hide her ‘to do’ list if necessary.

Star signs are supposed to be all about how the planets are lined up when we were born.
Curious.

Make. Perceive. Communicate.

Auden in 1946 for LIFE Magazine

Auden in 1946 for LIFE Magazine

I read this just now in A Twentieth Century Reader: Texts and Debates. It was written by Auden in 1938 for the introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse:

‘Behind the work of any creative artist there are three principal wishes:
the wish to make something;
the wish to perceive something, either in the external world of sense or the internal world of feeling;
and the wish to communicate these perceptions to others.’

I liked it very much because it is exactly how I feel. He went on to say:

‘Those who have no interest in or talent for making something, i.e. no skill in a particular artistic medium, do not become artists; they dine out, they gossip at street corners, they hold forth in cafés. Those who have no interest in communication do not become artists either, they become mystics or madmen.’

So we’re all mad, or gossipy diners, or artists. I wonder if I could fit everyone I know into just those three categories!
😉

NaNoNoMore

Some brains don’t do busy very well.

Today I made the important decision to draw a line under my mad NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) dash this year.
I have written nothing for it for ten days. But I have written other things so I know that I can only blame my finger injury and family life for three of those days, and the rest has been me just not getting down to it, and maybe a feeling that perhaps the time isn’t right this month.

Because I’d enjoyed the experience and was pleased with how I managed to squeeze everything in last year, I wanted to achieve something similar this year. I cried when I finished last year. At the time I was taking creative writing and psychology modules with the OU and probably just about got away with not putting enough effort into my studies for a few weeks.

It turns out that that the literature course I am doing this year involves me thinking a lot more than I have ever had to before and when I’m not thinking I want to play with the washing or the garden or go for a walk, or even talk to my husband. When I am writing for anything other than OU at the moment I want it to be with little or no commitment; a piece of flash, a blog post, not part of something I’m tied to. It’s possible that reading about how other writers write is so interesting that I’m taking longer reading and thinking about the discussions in the course books than the suggested hours of study. I can see how some of it relates to the way I write – and some of it doesn’t – and empathise with the lives I read about in their letters or by the people who have studied them.

I have one of those infuriating heads that is probably equally as infuriating to those who know me as it is to me. I just cannot have a lot going on in my life or even my ears, in my vision, in the same room as me! I think this is why I am terrible socially – it’s sensory overload plus thought chaos. Sometimes I can’t even read Twitter because the thought of having to cope with a conversation overwhelms me. Odd I know. It can make me seem rude or selfish when sometimes it is quite the opposite; I’m internally wrangling about the best way to deal with a situation.

Yesterday I had what I suppose is commonly described as a meltdown.
I felt that I might as well have been spinning on the spot singing in Elvish at the top of my voice while the room turned onto a whirl of indefinable whooshes of colour and I tried to catch random curve balls. I was and am getting nowhere, completing nothing and wondering how to prioritise. I was also coming down with a cold and felt something’s got to give before I end up with post-viral fatigue again.

So, I’m clearing the decks in order to limit the ‘everything and nothing’ feeling. I can’t focus – I don’t know how to but I can make sure I have only one thing in front of me so that when my eyes or my mind wander they can’t stray too far.

Good luck to everyone still on the mad, fun NaNoWriMo ride. I love it, and wish everyone well.

Maybe next year…

Or maybe I’ll have my own private NaNoWriMo without telling anyone. 😉

Window


She opened the bedroom window, almost absent-mindedly, to dilute the noise in her head. She often found she had opened the window without considering it. It was an instinctive thing. Sometimes her skin tingled with itchy heat, sometimes the air inside felt too thick to breathe and sometimes she simply felt so inquisitive she knew she just had to peer into the treetop views that she felt so much less in touch with throughout cold autumn rainy times.
She took two nostrils of cool breeze and then ducked her head back in again quickly to avoid the light droplets of rain that were falling with increasing persistence. Then she stood at the windowsill with her legs twisted so that her feet were positioned on the wrong sides, exhaled deeply, and listened.
The wind purred with the gentle noises it was tumbling together: The distant ocean, the air whooshing though the rows of half-bare trees, the fickle tickle of bramble leaves still clinging determinedly within the hedges, a helicopter so far away that its blades seemed to scribble at the air like a pencil on a hard surface under a single sheet of paper. Someone, somewhere was sawing something – lopping off a tree branch or cutting slates to fit a kitchen floor, or maybe even building a birdhouse – she liked that idea and dwelled on the positivity of it.
Birdcalls came in piccolo spurts and sea-saw violin bowings and oboe parps like a modern uneven symphony, while the jackdaws chacka-chackered percussively and the rain pattered below her on the plastic conservatory roof like impatient fingernails. Road traffic engines growled higher and lower, changing gear on the hill, coming closer – almost too close – before fading away again.

She saw that she had missed the designated countrywide silence for 11th November, and wondered if that made her a bad person. She had read Wilfred Owen’s famously ghastly war poem many times in the last few years and winced in horror at the ‘froth-corrupted lungs’, she had heard news of deaths from war on television almost daily and taken a moment to think of awfulness, sacrifice, and loss, and wondered at the futility, the people who benefitted, the people who were left with nothing. Regularly war bothered her. Loss bothered her. The shortness of life bothered her. And the wasting of lives all over the world bothered her. Of course she wasn’t a bad person; she took moments out of every day to consider, and to care.
She knew when sadness washed over her to go with it, to take time, not to force it to either come or go. She had seen terrible suffering, felt loss and understood pain.
Moments came and went. Remembrance came and went. Sadness came and went.

She was distracted by a tractor struggling noisily uphill in front of her. She thought of the nagging hunger in her stomach, the lonely dog downstairs, and the washing to be done.

A little sadness was carried with her daily, unforced. It was always there.

Oh look – she’d left the window open again.

Dragons

A flash fiction in dialogue

But I thought you liked ballet.

I do but I don’t like people watching me.

Let me check your hairpins. Stop frowning. It’ll be good for you.

Yes, Mummy.

Competition gives you something to strive for.

Yes, Mummy.

We all need to step out of our comfort zone sometimes.

Our what? Mummy?

Comfort zone. It’s like… Well not just doing things that we find easiest all the time. Erm… Taking risks, being brave, pushing ourselves. Does that make sense?

I’m not sure, Mummy. Do you mean doing things that scare me?

Yes. That’s it. Clever girl!

Why do I want to be scared?

Well, because when it’s over you can say, ‘I’m glad I did that.’

Why would I be glad to be scared?

Because it won’t be as scary as you thought it would after all. You’ll have conquered your fear.

Like slaying a dragon?

Yes!

But I’d rather not.

Why?

I’m not a fighting person. And what if I don’t win?

You’ll have done your best and you’ll be better prepared for next time.

Next time? You want me to be scared again?

No. I want you to face your fears and step out of your comfort zone occasionally.

I think that’s silly.

You do?

Yes. People that want to be scared can watch scary films and do a bungi-jump and be in ballet competitions. The rest of us can carry on not being frightened. And stay in our comfortable zone.

It’s not that kind of comfortable.

Oh?

No. It’s comfort – as in easy, sometimes too easy. Maybe even just doing what’s familiar because you’re scared of the unknown – of taking chances.

I do like the unknown, though, Mummy. I like learning about new things. But I like familiar things too. I don’t have to choose, do I?

What about when you grow up? You’ll have to do all sorts of new and scary things.

Will I have to win competitions?

Well, er, only if you want to.

Well I don’t want to. So can I go home now?

But darling, life is full of risk and fear and I want you to be strong and be prepared. You’ll be okay, I pro –

– Sorry folks. You won’t be performing tonight. The last dancer’s vomited all over the stage. Scared witless. Never seen anyone so white.

She won’t be so scared next time, will she, Mummy? Now she’s slayed her dragon?

No, darling.

– I wouldn’t be so sure of that, love. That’s the third time she’s puked in a competition.

I think she wins, then, doesn’t she? She’s been the most scared. I hope she can go back to being comfortable now.

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