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writing in hibernation mode

I’m so tired these days. It’s hard to wake up. I think I’m missing the sun. Maybe my body wants to hibernate. This sleep-walking state seems to be good for my writing though. Probably because my brain is left out of it and my subconscious has full reign of my fingers as I type.

The following is the beginning of an idea that I have carried in my heart for years. I was always afraid to work on it. This morning I woke with a song in my mind, the song that is the inspiration to that idea. And these words flowed out. If you have any comments or feedback… you know the drill.

**********

I’m writing this to you. You know who you are. You are the one who destroyed my life.

I remember when I saw you the first time. You were standing at the edge of the crowd on the afternoon of the poetry reading in honor of the prize we’d recently won at the department. I noticed you because you were so still, standing like a statue – or no, not a statue. A statue is dead. And you were alive. The whole chattering, laughing, excited crowd seemed dead next to you as you stood there. You were the center of the world spinning around you. And your eyes… Your eyes were fixed on Norma.

I pointed you out to her. How ironic is that?

Actually, it isn’t. It’s a bad joke, that’s all.

I wonder now… If I hadn’t pointed you out, if I hadn’t bent my head to her as we sat at the side of the stage, and whispered “Hey, I think you’ve got an admirer!” and she hadn’t smiled up at me and said “Only one?” and then followed my little nod in your direction and she hadn’t met your eyes over the crowd assembled to hear the poetry of our students… Had none of that happened, would I be writing this letter now? Would she be here with me at this moment, instead of…

I hate you.

But I cannot blame you.

The blame rests with me. Or maybe not. Maybe there is noone to blame. Maybe it had to happen like this. Maybe this was always meant to be, right from the beginning.

The beginning… I don’t even know when it began. I seems there is no beginning. Was it that our grandfathers worked side by side in the factory? That they went off to fight in the same regiment and returned home badly wounded within three months of each other? That their wives had forged a close friendship in their absence and the couples bought neighboring houses? That our fathers and uncles and aunts grew up side by side? That our fathers, in turn, moved into neighboring houses when they each married? Was that the beginning?

Or was it that we were born in the same year, six months apart – the winter child and the summer child. Mike and Norma.

**********

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the creative potential of migraines and dreams

I’m prone to headaches. Too much tension? Headache. Not enough fresh air? Headache. Sudden change in the weather? Headache. Perfume section in department stores? Headache. Sometimes, the headaches evolve to migraines. Luckily not that often, but when they do it’s sudden and brutal and I need to lie down immediately either in a dark room or with a scarf or similar wrapped around my head.

Yesterday I woke up with a headache and because I procrastinated on the medication, the pain suddenly skipped up the scales, whistling merrily as it went and trying to explode my head, which was my cue to lie down again and pull the blankets over my head. My youngest sister was kind enough to drop the blinds and bring me an extra blanket. (I don’t know why headaches always make me feel cold – something to do with the draining of energy? hm…)

And as I lay there, drifting somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, not thinking and not dreaming, trying to relax, words formed in my head and without any conscious effort at all, my brain dictated the whole text of the introduction to the (academic) project I’m working on at the moment to me. It’s not like I had started writing it already, or even thought about how to phrase my ideas. I’m still very much in the research phase. I have made a few mental notes on things that need to be made clear from the beginning, the emphasis on the approach I’m taking and so on. But I hadn’t written a single word of the intro, not on paper and not in my head. And yet, there it was. And it was good. It was clear, it was structured and it was to the point – but it also held passion and conveyed the importance of the issue and drew the reader right in.

Unfortunately, my brain chose to compose that text while I was prostrated and in no condition to emerge from under the blankets, so I couldn’t capture it. The same goes for dreams, by the way. I don’t always remember my dreams, but when I do, they are always long, involved, detailed, colourful and usually follow a loose storyline. I’ve dreamed the most amazing adventure stories and mysteries. I usually don’t remember them past the first two minutes after waking up though, and even while I try to write them down, they slip away so that I usually end up with mad scribblings, half of which are illegible and the other half doesn’t make sense anymore.

This morning, I tried to recapture the introduction my mind presented to me yesterday. I can’t. I use similar phrases, I try to use the same structure but it sounds forced and boring and pedantic. I’m sure I can improve it a lot, but my question is this: Why is my subconscious so much more brilliant than my conscious mind? And can somebody please remind me to take a dictaphone to bed when I have the next migraine?

Do you have amazing ideas in dreams and in a half-conscious state as well? How do you hang on to them? And do you think it’s possible to access that effortless creativity when awake?

the state of the challenges

I’m a miserable failure with the challenges so far. I’ve played with the thought of going out to a café several times, but haven’t done it. I’ve also not been running for longer than a few minutes, with the dog, which is not what I meant. AND I haven’t participated in any official writing challenge. For the second and third, I still have time. The first one, however, I really failed.

Unless you’d allow me to count that I went to our local Christmas market this afternoon with two friends and their little son? And we did end up in our favourite café? And that I’m driving over to a bigger town with my sister tomorrow to do some leisurely Christmas shopping and book browsing? Both of which together in two days is more socializing and getting-out-of-the-house than I’ve done in weeks. Can I chalk that up with the café challenge?

… No? Ah well, alright then. I knew I couldn’t, really. I need to do the running, though, I want to.

Also, unexpected side effect – I’ve been much more productive with my writing in the last week! All in all I have to say that I’m not regretting it so far.

Oh, and I’m also bribing you to not be too harsh on me with the picture of a pretty winter sunrise in the country and that of a very lazy dog (with a very untidy beard).

winter sunrise in the country

lazy dog

At least he understands about the running…

things that live in the cellar

It all started innocently enough. It was during the summer, I was ready for bed and just doing something last-minute on the computer. The rest of the family had retired a good while ago and everything was quiet. There was a gentle breeze coming through the open (but fly-screen-protected) window. I heard a scuttling, rustling, scratching noise behind and above me and thought: ‘Oh no, one of the dragonflies has got in!’ It was exactly the kind of noise they make when they get inside the house and fly along the walls, trying to find the window again. I turned around and saw a huge, eight-legged creature scurrying along the wall behind me, just below the ceiling, its legs on the wallpaper producing the sound I’d heard.

My heart stopped, my breath stopped and I felt like screeching, but I didn’t dare move. The spider came to a stop in the corner of the room. Unfortunately, that corner was just above the door and I needed to use the door to get help. Slowly I stood up, knees knocking, my eyes fixed on the fleshy, hard-shelled critter and slowly, slowly I inched towards the door, keeping as far away from its corner as I could. I eased open the door, sure that any sudden movement would send it running off, and as much as I didn’t want it sitting above my door, I wanted it even less below my bed, behind my books or beneath my desk. That would have meant evacuating the room.

Once safely outside, I closed the door equally carefully and raced up two flights of stairs to get to my parents’ bedroom. The side of the bed facing the door is my Mum’s, and she is a very light sleeper, but for an emergency like this I really needed my Dad. I crept around the bed in the dark, trying not to wake my mother and got entangled in the carpet that the dog had thoughtfully rearranged earlier to make a big, soft, cushiony pile for his spoiled head to rest on and almost fell right on top of my Dad. He slept through it, but when I’d managed to rouse him (“Dad! Wake up! Right now!”) and had dissuaded him from his notion that either the house was on fire or one of us was on her deathbed, he was awesome beyond belief. I told him of my intruder and apologized for waking him as we hurried downstairs and he was calm and cool and just said: “That’s quite alright.”

I didn’t dare go in the room again, so he equipped himself with an old metal can that had at some distant past contained paint and a thick piece of cardboard and thus armed, bravely entered my room. I waited outside, nervously shifting my weight from one foot to the other, wondering if I could ask him to snatch my blanket and pillow if it got away and if I should seek refuge in my sister’s room or sleep on the couch. And then he came out, my Dad, my hero, gingerly holding the paint can in one hand and pressing the cardboard over the opening with the other hand. I hastened to open the door to the outside, so he could throw it out, and that’s what he did. He also admitted that it had been exceptionally large. I returned to my room, shut the door, shut the window, switched on all the lights, checked all the corners and finally fell into sleep. Yes, I left the light on.

This could be the end of the story, but actually, there’s more.

Two days later I opened the door in the morning, ready for another day, when, with my foot in the air, I realized that a spider – the first one’s brother, its cousin or maybe its father – was sitting right there on the floor, pressed against the doorframe, poised to storm my room. To this day, I’m proud of my reaction in that moment. In one leap, I jumped across the spider, while at the same time slamming the door shut behind me. Again, it was Dad to the rescue. This time, however, he messed up by dropping the can, so the thing could escape and hide behind the small cabinet in the hallway. I kept my room tightly shut for weeks, only opening the one half of the window that has a fly-screen cover for ventilation. And every time I opened the door, I peered out cautiously, checking the floor and the ceiling. (This spider fell prey- many, many weeks later – to a vacuum-cleaner-attack when it was incautious enough to show itself again.)

The next encounter with that particular spider family was in my bathroom. There isn’t a full bathroom down in the cellar, but there’s a toilet and wash-basin and while I was brushing my hair one morning, I dropped one of my hairpins, bent down to retrieve it and froze – another of the beasts was sitting right there, half protruding from its hiding place between the floor and the toilet fixtures, ready to pinch my hairpin. That’s what it looked like, anyway. I pride myself in how calm I stayed at that point. I left the hairpin to its spidery destiny and simply left the room, closing the door behind me. I went upstairs for breakfast and mentioned the spider, looking hopefully at my Dad. He seemed disinclined to be heroic before coffee, so my Mum got up and said: “I’ll do it. I’ve raised five children, I’m not afraid of a spider.” I tried to explain that this was no ordinary spider, but she only seemed exasperated by my efforts to save her. So down we went again and she equipped herself with the spider-removal tools (the paint can and the cardboard) and opened the door and I pointed it out to her and to my deep (and evil) satisfaction, she jerked back. “It’s certainly big,” she said. I said yes. (In my head, though, I said: “Yes!!! I told you so and you wouldn’t listen!”) She was absolutely heroic nonetheless and captured it, only to let the can fall again, so that we had to resort to the vacuum cleaner once more.

All of this brings us to last night. Last night, what happened was this:

I open the bathroom door, already in my pajamas, ready for bed and there it is, right in the middle of the hallway, with all the doors open. Probably not moving because it can’t decide which room to infest with its presence. I forbid myself to screech, concentrating on gathering my courage instead. First priority: somehow reach the door of my room so I can close it. I creep around it in as much of a big circle as the geography of the cellar hallway allows me, on tiptoe so it won’t feel the vibrations and scurry off. I manage that first and most important task. I even remember closing the bathroom door before I leave it. Now it’s only me and it. I feel a little like a Western hero in a standoff. The only way of escape is behind the spider and there’s nothing in my part of the hallway that I could put over it, no bucket, no paint can, no nothing. After debating with myself for a while and growing steadily colder with bare feet on the tiles, I finally manage to jump across it. Then I run up the stairs and get the vacuum cleaner down and carefully ease back into the hallway. I know my duty. There’s no choice here about whether or not I should call help, since the parents are currently enjoying the beaches of South India. It hasn’t moved. It’s mocking me. I plug in the vacuum, roll off enough cable so that I have freedom of movement, extend the arm to the fullest, switch on the machine … and everything goes dark.

At this point I’m freaking, my fertile imagination is painting technicolour pictures of a spider racing towards me, hundreds of spiders, the whole hallway awash in spiders, all intent on climbing all over me and I can feel a tingling, tickling sensation all along my legs and with one gigantic bound I fly through the air, out through the door, race up the stairs, heart pounding, sweat on my forehead, up, up, up until I reach my sister’s room, where I burst in on her, probably with my hair turned grey and my eyes rolling wildly. She’s in the middle of putting cream on her face and looks at me in dismay. I proceed to unfold my tale, which makes her two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, her knotted and combined locks part and each particular hair stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

Alright, maybe it doesn’t quite have that effect, and she doesn’t have knotted and combined locks anyway, but I couldn’t resist. (Such a great picture of terror, isn’t it? Also, I’ve always wondered why the porcupine would be fretful, but that’s another story.) She looks at me and says: “There’s a spider and you call me for help?” I have to add at this point that my dislike of spiders is but a gentle breeze to the raging hurricane of her fear of them. “I only need you to fix the electricity,” I plead. She agrees to come as long as she doesn’t have to look at the terrible sight. So down we go. (At first, accompanied by the dog, trailing his cuddly blanket behind him and his face all mussed up because we’ve rudely wakened him from his first slumber, but he’s man enough to know his responsibility and accompany the womenfolk to the danger. We sent him back to his bed. He leaves, still half asleep.) My sister, the genius, clicks the fuse back into place and waits at the top of the stair. I descend, careful to check where it has moved to (nowhere, still the same spot, still mocking me), switch on the vacuum and do the evil deed. After that, I go through every reachable and almost unreachable part of my room, vacuuming hundreds of imaginary spiders before I give my sister the all-clear and finally retire to dreams that are mercifully spider-free.

The morale of this tale? If there’s nobody there to be a hero for you, you just have to be your own.

challenges, part II

As threatened, challenges. I’ve been thinking about that. What counts as a challenge is, of course, widely different from person to person, and not only that, it can also be different for one person at different stages in life. So I’ve been trying to determine what counts as challenging for me at the moment and I’ve come up with a frightening number of things:

Going out. Social interaction away from the computer, not counting my family. Reading something new. Watching a movie that is too emotional and/or thought-provoking. Staying up to date with news and what’s going on in the world. Writing on a daily (or any other kind of regular) basis. Sports (as in the healthy, weight-loss, general-health-improving way). Thinking about the future. Taking steps to learn any of the things I want to learn/improve (guitar, photography, …. a score of things). Working towards any of the million of ideas I have of what I what to do in my life.

Damn, this is a frustrating and terrible list. I hope you haven’t lost all respect for me now. I’m really not as pathetic as this makes me sound. That is… I’m not underneath. On the surface, however, I seem to be quite as pathetic at that, at the moment at least, and thinking about this, I’ve realized that I’ve been merely coasting on the surface for quite a long while now. And that explains why there are so many things that I see as challenging at the moment – apparently I’ve shut myself off from anything that has any depth or that connects with anything deep inside me.

And that’s about to change! 🙂

I’m proposing three levels of challenges: a short-term one that will cover 1 day to 1 week maximum. A medium-term one that will cover one month. And one or two ongoing ones. I’ll stick them to the side of the blog in a neat little widget, together with the time frame. The crucial part is that I really need to be afraid or ashamed of not reaching the goal, so that I push through. That’s where I need you guys. You gotta hold me accountable.

(btw – y’all made me glow and smile and all-over-happy with your comments on the last post! Big hugs to all of you!)

So, feel free to threaten horrible guilt from time to time, or if you have an idea for a good punishment, I’d welcome that, too! I’ve been thinking that maybe I could make some kind of financial agreement with myself to set aside a certain amount of money for every challenge that I failed and then give that money to some good cause? Does that sound sensible or plain stupid? It’s just an idea at the moment… (Although the danger is, of course, that I won’t mind not making the challenge… hm… difficult…)

Aaaaand, if anyone wants to join in with any of them at any time, I’d so love that, too! Mutual encouragement works just as well as fear of shame. 🙂

First round of challenges then:

short-term: I will go into town and sit in a café (extra points if I go to one of the new ones that I don’t know!) for at least one hour, either reading or writing, but NOT on the computer.

(this may not sound particularly challenging to you, and it wouldn’t have sounded so to me a year ago, but at the moment my heart is fluttering just thinking about it…)

mid-term: I will go running at least twice a week for the whole of December, each run lasting a minimum of thirty minutes.

(I can do that. I can definitely do that.)

on-going: I will take part in an “official” writing/blogging challenge once a week (the exact challenge yet to be determined).

(this one is making my palms sweat!)

Oh, and the promised cookies for reading the last post!!! I almost forgot. If you follow this link, you’ll be taken to a download location (via wetransfer) where I put three pdfs for you to download – the recipes of the cookies we made last week. Enjoy! 🙂

challenges

I had a blog before this one. It was similar in look, I guess, and similar in content. I started it when I went abroad to do another university degree and it was meant as a sort of mass e-mail, to stay in touch with people. Necessarily, therefore, it was a lot more personal. And after a few months, I stopped it in disgust because it was meandering, pointless (= no thread) and most of all, I hated that it had started to sound negative and complaining and vulnerable and whiny and annoying and a lot of other things that I can’t quite remember now, but that were bad. BAD. Like drunk-dialing or something. I vowed never to blog again. I couldn’t trust myself.

Then after a while I got over it and started again, with a new name, a new idea and an actual purpose – to get my voice, my writing, out there and see if it resonated with anyone or if it was all just in my mind. “It” being the notion that I wasn’t too bad at putting words together. At the same time, I promised myself that I wouldn’t post anything if I didn’t feel good and that even if I was going to write about not-so-good things, I’d better make damn sure it was funny!

And then today I got an e-mail from a friend, casually saying that he’s been reading the blog and thinks I sound depressed. And that was a shock. Admittedly, this friend is like a soul brother, so he probably picked up some stray radiation from reading my mind, as he’s wont to do, but still…!

It’s been bugging me all day, and I can’t stop thinking about it, so I want to clear the air about some stuff:

1. If I ever sound complaining, whiny, or annoying, please, PLEASE, kick me in the (digital) butt! I mean that.

2. I’m not depressed. Really.

3. I know what depressed is like, and while it’s true that I’ve been happier, chirpier, more focused and more positive in my life than I am at this point in time, I’m not depressed.

4. No, I’m not protesting too much.

5. I’m actually not very happy at the moment, and the problem is motivation, or lack thereof. Or rather, the strength to see things through and to be who I want to be. I’m not going to bore you with this stuff, just wanted to mention it, because it relates to:

6. I’ve been on the point of asking my friends for help in checking up on me at semi-regular intervals and using the naming-and-shaming technique to get me to accomplish things, but I dismissed that thought again, because that’s also whiny and pathetic, and it’d be a lot of trouble and some people would worry unnecessarily and so…

7. … I’ve decided to set myself challenges, and because it’s too easy to find excuses for myself (I’m such a sucker for a good excuse from myself), I’m going to set the challenges publicly and let the internet do the naming-and-shaming. And by internet, I mean of course you, the wonderful readers of this blog. Which brings me to this:

8. From this moment on, expect challenges. Not quite sure what that’ll look like, but be prepared for them.

9. If you’ve managed to read this far without falling asleep, you’re awesome and you get a cookie. Or some home-made gingerbread.

gingerbread

10. I’m done talking now, but ten is a much neater number to finish on than nine, so you get a point ten … *silence* … Anybody know any jokes? …

talking to myself (a writing experiment)

After moaning about being unfocused and being gently-but-firmly kicked in the butt by Julie (who is a writing machine and has just published her first book, which I’m currently reading and which you should so check out), I stopped the complaining (out loud) and did sit down and write and have now, by Sunday afternoon, two fresh new chapters – yeay!

My morning walks with the dog, which I touched upon in the previous post (as a devious means to distract your attention from the fact that I was feeling sorry for myself) also enter into this post, although not for the pretty landscape, but for something I’ve been experimenting with: dictating the story to myself.

Usually when I walk the dog, I either just listen to my surroundings – especially in the mornings, when it’s still fresh and quiet and birds are singing – or, if I need a bit of escapism, I listen to audio books on my mp3-player (Georgette Heyer, anyone?). Shortly before November, when I was scrambling to get to know my characters sufficiently to be able to work with them, I decided to try and not only talk to myself in my head, which of course I do all the time, but to do it in a more constructive way and talk out loud and record it on my player. Which I did, feeling like a fool and falling silent every time I only saw another person approaching on the horizon. But it worked! Talking and asking questions out loud really focused my attention and I developped some interesting and quite unforeseen backstories.

This morning, I decided that I had enough backstory, that I didn’t need any more ‘about’. So I gulped – twice – and took out my trusty little mp3-player and started telling the story at the point where I had left off the night before. Every time I got stuck, I just repeated the sentence before and every time it clicked after two or so repetitions and I could carry on. It was amazing! I’d expected it to be more difficult, because usually I need my hands to move to have my best ideas, but somehow, it worked!

When I came back home with about 45 minutes of talk on my player, I was so psyched that I sat down, put on the earphones and started taking dictation from myself straight away. Now that really was weird, to be honest. Most of us, I think, feel uncomfortable with hearing our own voices outside of our head, and I had been almost whispering when I recorded it, as well as walking quite fast, so I was breathy and hard to understand even to myself! Also, every time I talked to the dog – to call him back or something – I switched to German and spoke much louder. Then I went back to telling the story in English in a half-whisper. People are strange, aren’t they?

Anyway, after typing what I’d told myself and adding some details here and there, I had a whole chapter where before, I’d had nothing. Magic! How cool is that?!

Have you ever dictated anything to yourself? Did it work for you? What other tricks do you know to move forward those troublesome stories? Do you feel as horribly self-conscious about hearing your own voice as I do?

lost

Last week was the first time since I’ve been back, the first time since I expected it upon coming back, the first time since I was a teenager, that this senseless, panicked aggression, that sense of suffocating and having to claw and shout and scream at other people came over me. That feeling that if I don’t scream, don’t burst through walls, don’t shock people, don’t hold on to myself while raising my voice above all the white noise, all the muttering, murmuring, mumbling, stumbling, … if I don’t assert my self, I’m going to slip under and just sink into the deep, well-lighted, comfortable depth of routine and stability and expectations and days going by and never come to the surface again where there is wind and laughter and storms and danger and change and waves and dreams and space.

 

cool cats singing in the night

It was last year, round about this time of year. I was living in London and so was, until the next morning, a wonderful Indonesian friend. We spent her last evening together, drinking coffee, wandering the cold streets of London, drinking hot chocolate and taking photos of her and river and us and the skyline along the river and talking, talking, talking.

While we were walking along the Jubilee walkway (that bit between Westminster Bridge and the Southbank Centre), I heard some music from up ahead that I really liked. I love street music and this sounded like a lot of fun. As we got nearer, all I could see though was a small CD player and a girl walking and dancing in front of it. We slowed down and looked and she approached us and asked if we liked the music and we said we liked it very much. She gave me a CD in a paper envelope, on which she’d handwritten a date and location and the name of the band she was blasting into the cold London night.

It was called Katzenjammer and she told us that she was ‘just’ a fan, doing this promotion by herself because she loved the band so much and not enough people knew about it – that’s some serious fan points in my book! Anyway, for some stupid reason that I cannot remember, I didn’t manage to go to the concert, even though I had really planned to go. And so I forgot about Katzenjammer.

Just last night, I was zapping through the TV channels after watching two really old episodes of Monk. I came across a concert that happened this summer at a big festival in Germany and I really liked the music and the look of the girls – so pretty and spunky and confident and feisty and funny. And that’s pretty much what the music sounded like as well. I quickly looked up the concert in the TV guide and – as you will probably have guessed by now – it was Katzenjammer.

They’re from Norway, and they’re an all-girls band who play about twenty instruments between them and the music sounds like a delicious, sweet and tangy and slightly naughty cocktail of rock, circus music, folk, the music of the better class of cabaret, with a good dose of ska rhythms thrown in, sprinkled with scenes from a French café and the last stand in at Mexican fort. I know,  that’s a crazy mixture! But it works. It definitely works. I’ll even prove it to you.

Understand what I mean?

P.S. I’m not sure what “Katzenjammer” exactly means in Norwegian, but I suppose it’s very close to what it means in German, which would be either, literally, ‘cats’ wailing’ (probably closely related to ‘caterwaul’) or, in the figurative sense, ‘hangover’. 🙂

scream down the desert

One of the most persisting and pervading day dreams or dream pictures I have is that of driving my car down from a plateau into a huge, empty landscape, the road rolling straight ahead of me, the sun beating down, the windows wide open, hair whipping in the slipstream, blasting music, not a single soul to be seen anywhere, just endless nature, sand, gravel, rocks, plants, maybe some birds of prey gliding on the thermals and the endless open road before me.

It’s the embodiment of freedom, the mental picture that keeps me going because I know, deep down, that one day I will drive down onto that plain at the fastest speed I can, with the most heart-rending, howling-at-the-sky-worthy music turned up as high as I can take it, and when I’m at the point where I will feel as though shortly I will explode into a thousand pieces and shatter the universe, I will stop the car, screeching and whirling up dust, and jump out and let out an almighty scream to shake the world in its foundations as it reverberates from the mountains behind me and in one tiny moment I will be a part of everything, every particle of this world, of the rocks, the water, the wind, the people, even you, and I will split your heart with the beauty and the magnitude and the free-whirling mystique of this world and leave you changed forever.

 

to my grandmother

Every Wednesday noon, one of the family meets my grandmother at her physiotherapist to drive her and all her grocery shopping home. Sometimes she’s in a hurry because she’s got some social engagement scheduled for the afternoon. Sometimes we invite her over for lunch. Sometimes she just wants someone to chat with for a while. Today it was the latter, so I stayed a while and she told me of another visit at the old people’s home where she goes regularly. It’s the place where a lot of her classmates, friends and acquaintances now live and it’s just down the hill from her house, so she often goes to visit there and to help out. She knows all the nurses and she knows they are chronically short on time.

I know all this, none of it is new to me. I know the stories, I know a lot of the people she talks about, at least I can remember them from when I was a kid. I know that she is very practical and kind in her assistance to her friends, I know the stories.

And yet, today, as we sat in her formally-comfortable living room at midday, with the grey sky outside and the heating on, I looked at her and it all felt new to me. I saw that her body was old, so much older than I remembered. I saw that she can’t see or hear as well as she used to. And I listened as she told me in her matter-of-fact way of the friend whose sight is failing and who she bullies to be as independent as she can be despite her insecurity over not seeing, and who she indulges in all those instances where indulgence is harmless. I listened as she told me how she helped another friend to change her trousers and discovered that she hadn’t made it to the bathroom in time and how she dealt with it in her calm, practical way. And I realized that I was sitting at a table with a heroine and suddenly I felt like bursting into tears.

And so, I’m dedicating this post and these thoughts to my grandmother, who is by no means a saint, who exasperates me regularly, and who is the coolest, strongest, toughest, kindest octogenarian I know. Who goes out of her way to help old friends. Who volunteers once a week at a charity shop. Who works as a volunteer in the church community, visiting elderly folks on their birthdays. Who loves to travel and has gone off to travel places like Alaska, South Africa, Peru in the last ten years alone. Who once threw out a very close friend, because that friend thought her social visit was more important than a promise that my grandmother had made to her four-year-old granddaughter that she could stay the night at her place, which the friendship didn’t survive and which she’s never regretted. Who played tricks on her teachers as a schoolgirl, who worked as a nurse throughout the war and the falling bombs, who fell in love with my grandfather at first sight, who, years later, had to be tricked in her turn by my grandfather into trying her very first pair of trousers, who prefers spending her money on her nine grandchildren than keeping it “safe”, who watches the news and reads and is well-informed and goes to the theatre and the opera and concerts and who always let me lick out the bowl when we baked cookies.

what I want

it’s all very well

saying I’ll only do what I want to do

when what I really want to do is

soar across an evening sky

look down on a landscape of open space

mountains on the horizon

the red sun lighting them up from beyond

the moon riding high and cold

on air that is cool

and tasty and supporting me

slipping along my body

carrying me as I glide over

the dusky emptiness

songs from Willamette Mountain

While I’m drinking hot ginger tea with lemon and honey and typing away at my future bestseller (yeah, well, one can dream, right?), I’m listening to a fantastic album: From the Top of Willamette Mountain, by Joshua James. You can stream it here in full.

Joshua James with guitar in field

I admit that I’d never even heard of Joshua James before I got this link from a friend and then I had it open as a tab on my browser for a while and then, when I listened to it the first time, I was immediately caught up. His voice is just a touch raspy and scratchy and the songs speak to me of solitude and loneliness and self-reliance and longing and space and memories. It’s a perfect mixture to capture my heart. The album is mostly quiet, but it had me humming along at the second spin already, as each song is distinct and individual and sparkling, while still retaining that edge that keep them from being just “nice”.

If you’re a writer on a mission to win NaNo, or just writing because that’s what you do, and you like to have some music to inspire you, try this album.

If you have nothing to do with writing but like good music, also try this album. It’ll be worth your time. It’ll be out on November 6th on Intelligent Noise.

oh, the freedom!

NaNo is finally here and I’m awash in a sea of words! I’m following all the twitter activity and checking up on how my buddies are doing and just generally getting off to a really good start. Best tip I ever received: start at midnight and write for as long as you can before you fall asleep – then when you wake up, you’ve already got a head start and the day is still only the first! I can almost feel all the other writers out there in the world, it’s like we’re all connected.

Which we are! I love the internet… *happy sigh*

Even though theoretically I could sleep in this morning, I was too fired up to sleep and woke with new ideas shimmering in my brain. And the rest of the day, even as I was busy with other things, those ideas seemed to be busy rubbing up against each other and multiplying and where yesterday I only had eight characters and the merest sketch of a shadowy outline, I now feel like I have a rainbow laid out in front of my feet.

Do I sound drunk? I think I’m drunk on possibilities. So far, one of the cast has announced to me that she’s pregnant, three have brought up successful claims to change their names (Yes, despite what I said earlier! And I really have no idea how it happened), the geeky, borderline-boring guy is turning out to be a really good jazz pianist and the goofy guy didn’t even begin being goofy and instead went straight for the bottle of irony. Which means, that I’m either loosing my tentative grip on the story (= bad), or the cast has come alive and is becoming very real indeed (=good, I think).

Oh, the feeling of freedom at the beginning, with all roads open and all avenues to be explored…!

Witches: Their Habits and Manners – A Non-Factual Treatise on the History of Witch Behaviour

(This is the answer to an indirect challenge by a friend, who posted a picture of witches using modern kitchen appliances in the deep dark woods and answered my lengthy list of well-thought-out questions (e.g. “Where would they get the electricity and WHY would they meet in the woods ANYWAY?”) with the information that she was on a campaign to confound me. I picked up that glove and here I am, presenting you with my research on the habits and traditions of witches – and just in time for Halloween as well! – founded exclusively on half-an-hour of deep pondering.)

A long time ago, witching was a job like any other in the public service sector. People would ask for help, and witches provided solutions and received payment in the form of a leg of mutton or possibly a basket full of apples (depending on the season and the magnitude of the problem solved, of course – in harsh winters, payment might also be in the form of firewood or similar). This was the golden age of witching. Things, however, changed…

Due to migratory movements and growing population numbers, witches fell under suspicion. This was mainly because people in new settlements brought their own witches, who naturally deemed themselves better than the ones originally settled there (“Her methods are sooo eleventh century!” Hildegunde, witch of the then-newly built settlement of New Tal, about her colleague in the village of Tal, AD 1102). Rivalry amongst the witches themselves, as well as feuds between the villagers about who had the better witch led to so many clashes, that the fact of having a witch in the village slowly became something negative. People started to turn on the witches, who they thought brought only strife and violence.

In a historical council, held one autumn night on the Blocksberg, a mountain in Central Europe, the witches agreed to settle their differences and adopted a ten-point policy that would ensure their safety. This was, of course, not settled on easily, and much glaring, cursing and sulking was involved. One particularly serious discussion is still on record, detailing the insults traded between two particularly powerful witches – Bartholomea from the village Sprotz and Aldreda from the village Nethelred – but they cannot be repeated here, since nobody has ever been able to read them without turning into a frog.

This paper encompassed the first and most important point, that of the formation of the Union of Witches (UW), membership of which was compulsory for all witches aiming to earn their living from witchcraft. The other nine points covered basic procedures for mutual identification and general protection. Amongst the former category was the obligatory wearing of a black, pointed hat, the possession of at least three warts on a visible part of the body, and the keeping of a familiar off a list of further detailed animals (toads, cats, ravens, goats and the consequently much unfavoured caterpillar (further research into its unpopularity is necessary to establish exact facts, but one theory points towards the solution of caterpillars not necessarily staying caterpillars, forcing the witch to train a new familiar each year).

The latter category, that of protection, was headed by the three doctrines of 1) remoteness, 2) unobtrusiveness and 3) lying. This led to witches removing from villages to cottages all alone in the woods and only visiting their villages on rare occasions and favourably at night and, of course, being untruthful when asked if they were a witch. At that time, these measures seemed the most sensible ones to ensure protection, yet in hindsight, it can be pretty firmly established that this policy did not bring about the desired effects.

Instead of the villagers perceiving them as harmless old biddies who lived in the woods, they became even more suspicious about them, reasoning that anything that necessitated them to move into the woods meant that they were up to nefarious deeds. “Instead of stealing into the woods at dead of night to cook up their brews, which meant that anyone with even the worst eyesight could see their fires through the trees and the foul stench could be smelled miles around, it would have been so much easier to just stay at home and pretend to be a really bad cook if company came to call at the moment when the witch had a cauldron full of frog spawn on the boil,” explains Annabelle Miller, senior researcher at the Institute of Fantastical History, University of Sprotz (founded, incidentally, by the witch Bartholomea, whose highly efficient curses still retain such power today).

Although their policy was counter-productive to the extreme, the witches continued it, because on the one hand, witches are, as is widely known, traditionalist and will always stick to the “old ways” (even if those old ways aren’t necessarily that old) and on the other hand, because none of them could face another council meeting like the one on the Blocksberg that had established the UW. “I’d rather be burned than come face to face with those old biddies again!” (Rohese, of the settlement of Chardonnière).

For centuries, these procedures were carried out faithfully by the generations of witches, adhering to the guidelines of the Union to maintain maximum distance between themselves and their sister witches. In recent years, however, there has been a major change. Starting in the 1960s, on the wave of liberation, free thinking and free sex, witches started to come out into the open. Because the necessity of protecting themselves had been instilled into them for generations, they started using a number of camouflage terms, like ‘esoteric’, ‘wicca’, ‘new pagan’ and so on. This deflected attention and allowed witches to slowly become a part of mainstream culture in western countries once more.

Nowadays, it is rather the norm than the exception for witches to conduct their business in their modern, big-city flats, where they have fully equipped kitchens. Necessary ingredients like snake’s eye, frog tails and cockroach wings are ordered through highly-specialized online shops and only those witches living in rural areas still harvest their own herbs and plants. These New Witches, as they call themselves, are frowned upon by those traditionalists that still remain, causing the witch community to be once again deeply divided, although time is slowly taking care of this problem as the old traditionalists are literally dying out.

Popular perception of witches as wart-covered, hunchbacked old women, cooking over open fires in the woods is now being increasingly criticized by the New Witches. “We feel that this cliché seriously hurts our business and lifestyle, and we are in the process of launching several awareness campaigns to challenge people’s stereotypical thoughts about witches”, says Matilde Bonhom, spokeswoman for the New Witch Association. It remains to be seen how society will react to this new policy, but the author of this treatise hopes to have done her part in shedding some light on an issue that has for too long remained in the deep, dark woods.

some good reads

Alright, so I found the perfect way to distract myself from my NaNo panic. After spending ALL day yesterday procrastinating by doing “research” into how to create perfect characters – everything from character charts, questionnaires, articles on character voice and how to write the opposite gender, … – I saw an update on “Princess” Monica’s blog where she raved about GoodReads and I caved in and signed up.

Now, I know you won’t believe this, but I really, honestly had not been a member there before. I hadn’t even checked it out. Yes, you’re allowed to laugh and no, I won’t hold it against you if you shake your head in disbelief and tut-tut disapprovingly. It’s justified.

I had been meaning to check out what it was all about forever, but it always landed at the bottom of the to-do list, plus, I don’t much like hypes and that’s what it felt like. But since I signed up last night, I have already acquired deep circles under my eyes, who in turn have gone red and swollen from staring at the screen so hard. My fingers on my mouse-hand are hurting from clicking on those teensy stars and I have landed myself with a new addiction. Hussa!

I’m also slowly starting to see why so many people are on there. True, so far all I’ve done is set up a basic profile and wreck my brain trying to think of all the books I’ve ever read and enthusiastically clicking ‘Want to Read’ on everything remotely interesting, but I can see that’s it’s a really good way of discovering new things to read. It’s also a really neat and specialized way of exchanging opinions about books and I think I’ll head over and check out the lists now, because I’ve been meaning to start reading some steampunk and I just don’t know where to start. I’m guessing the lists will be helpful there.

What’s your opinion on GoodReads? And what should I definitely try/look out for/experiment with? Any tips?

the panic button

For the first time in my life, I have a room in which I work and a room in which I sleep. Separate rooms. A bedroom without a computer. A work space without scattered clothes. And to think it only took me thirty years to achieve this dream!

My youngest sister  has moved to England  a while ago, vacating her room, and my room in the souterrain (or basement, if you prefer, although it does have a large window!) has now been renovated, which means that I now have two rooms at my disposal. One for sleeping, reading and just closing the door behind me to get some privacy. Another to sit at a large desk, with lots and lots of daylight and do important things like … well… hm… writing blog posts? Yes. Writing blog posts. Also, read blog updates by other people. And read facebook updates. And catch up on some news, or better, write messages to friends. … Hm. I feel like I’m forgetting something…

OH! Of course. AND prepare for NaNo! Obviously. Very busy with that. Yes. Very. So far, I have done four characterizations out of eight people I need in-depth knowledge of. Two of which I’m not quite happy with yet. Hm. What date is it again?

What? The 25th already? Well, then there’s nothing for it, I’ll have to press the button.  [panic mode activated]

What am I doing here? What are yo doing here, reading this? Shouldn’t you be plotting away? Shouldn’t I? So much to do! So little time! Gaaaah, where’s the last week gone?!? Help!

(To the writers: how are your preparations progressing? All done? Struggling? Not preparing anything anyway? Please tell me I’m not the only one whose stomach flutters unpleasantly at the thought of November 1st getting closer and closer!)

night music

While putting together a collection of music for a friend, I got stuck on Nick Drake. To be exact, on Bryter Layter. And writing a little anecdote for said friend, explaining why I’d chosen this album, I relived the times I described and it suddenly became so real and so overwhelming that I couldn’t go on and am now, on an autumnal Saturday night, at my desk, listening to the whole album and drifting somewhere between daydreaming and remembering. I will just hope that the friend in question does not read this post before I can send the music off, because I’m just going to copy what I just wrote for him half an hour ago because I can’t describe it any better:

I can’t say that I have a favourite Nick Drake album, but if I had one, I think it would be this or Pink Moon. This is my “falling-asleep-under-the-stars” album. I listened to it almost every night when I was travelling in Croatia. I’d be outside in the sun all day, hiking or swimming or reading or writing or meditating and when it started getting dark, I’d crawl into my little tent and watch the stars through the mosquito net of the open tentflap, snuggled into the sleeping bag more for comfort than warmth and I’d listen to the rustle of the wind in the pines and the creaking of wood as the earth slowly cooled down and then I’d put on my mp3-player and listen to this album very softly.

I held on to that feeling in a poem. I’ll share it below the songs, together with a photo I dedicated to the poem.

night music
night
cold stars are out
zipped in
warm and safe
in the dark
notes floating
in my ears
piano and guitar
tears fall
for lonely songs
with intricate longings
and the vulnerable voice
of a musician
who died too young
and yet can make me feel
at home
in this night

Stari Grad bay, Croatia, at night

votes are in and names are up

Wow, thanks for everyone who voted on the NaNo novel! The numbers are in and it stands as this:

Option 1 (comic urban fantasy): III

Option 2 (children’s adventure): IIII

Option 3 (literary fiction): IIII I

So it looks as if I’ll be attempting some literary fiction. That’s a new one for me and I have to tell you, I’m a little intimidated by it, but in the end, challenges are good, aren’t they? Help us to rise above ourselves? Make us better and stronger people?

… alright, it did sound more convincing in my head…

Okay, I’ll be serious. Serious about planning, that is. Since it’s already the 18th (!!! gahhhhh! how did that happen?!?!?) and there is lots and lots to plot and plan. Some things I already know though. The names. I don’t how how you guys deal with names, but for me, it’s pretty much one of the first things I know about a character. Not always. Sometimes I know who he or she is and then find a name that fits them. But usually, the name and the character of the person come to me in a bundle. And then, once they have that name, that’s it. There’s nothing I can do about it. I might want to change it later on, because maybe the name has to sound different or maybe it conveys a ‘wrong’ cultural background or two names in one story sound too much alike, but in that case, it’s just bad luck. Nothing I can do about it.

I mean, just imagine if you took it into your head that you really didn’t like your own name that much and you decided to go by another. Maybe you have a second name, maybe you’ll change your surname to something else… but underneath, in your own head, wouldn’t you still think of yourself by your original name?

I can see how a change of name would help if you wanted to become a different person. Just like clothes, I guess: you put them on and you just feel different. They allow you to leave your personality and pretend, for a little while, that you are more fun or more quiet, more outspoken or more professional, more this or that or anything else that you can think of than you usually are. That’s one reason why people dress up for job interviews or for dates or for festive occasions – it’s an outward signal to themselves and it bucks them up to be professional or at their most charming or in their best festive mood. It helps. It’s certainly part of why I only really use make-up and fancy jewelry at certain times (like interviews and exams and parties and so on). In the end though, you’re still yourself when you take the clothes off.

A change of name, of course, is more permanent than clothes and I’m sure it would help you change, just by always reminding you to be different and act as a sort of guide to the new you. But that’s exactly my point with characters: once they have a name, that is them. I cannot change the name without changing the personality. And the other way round, if I think that that secondary character (or even, in one case, the main character herself) really has to be different to fit in the story, then I need to do them from scratch: new personality, new name, new character. The old ones gets put in a back corner of my head, where they sulks for a while, crossing their arms in front of their chests, huffing and kicking at the dusty furniture and pretending not to be hurt, until they snatch up a random particle of inspiration and hold it up above their heads, its light reflecting back on their faces and lighting it up with a wild hope and glee and they shout at me: “That’s my story, right there! All mine! My story! Do something about it! Move, come on!”

(I don’t know if your characters sulk or are hurt or angry at you or shout at you and order you about, but I fervently hope they do, because if they don’t, it might mean I’m crazy after all.)

So, yeah, names are IMPORTANT. They define people. They define characters in novels. And I have the names for my next book, and attached to that, the personalities of the characters. That’s a good start, right?

All the writers out there: do you find names as important as well? Are you able to change them in the middle of the story or is that utterly unthinkable for you?

please choose my NaNo novel!

As October is sprinting on, a new challenge is starting to loom on the horizon for all write-minded people.

Yep, NaNoWriMo is upon us once more.

I didn’t realize this until a got an official e-mail last week, reminding me of the fact. For some reason, it’s the same with NaNo as with Christmas – both happen so suddenly. Just – bam! – and there is November and the madness of writing a minimum of 50,000 words worth of story. And straight after receiving the mail, I also noticed that the writing-oriented blogosphere was buzzing with NaNo, with everybody writing about their preparations, their fears, their motivation and so I decided it was high time I did the same. Just so I don’t feel left out.

The first time I attempted NaNo was last year, and I crashed and burned quite soon into the proceedings. Then I attempted the June version of it, which calls itself Camp NaNo and managed to be a glorious winner! Alright, I haven’t even finished editing that draft yet, but since I made that experience of sprinting over the finishing line with my whole system buzzing from caffeine and five minutes to spare, I have been game to try it again, so November is coming just at the right time! (well, it usually does, which is, right after October, but I guess you know what I mean…)

So for preparation so far I have done the amazing amount of nothing. I haven’t even decided yet on which story I should use. And since I can’t decide, I’d thought I’d get your opinions. If anybody out there is interested in playing fate, feel free and tell me your choice. (Just keep in mind that I suck at titles and I haven’t really got the plots for any of these figured out beyond the basics!)

**********

OPTION 1

Working title: Demon School

Genre: Urban Fantasy with lots of comedy thrown in and a chick-lit-kinda romance

Story (very roughly): A young woman from a small town, with a healthy dose of curiosity and the ability to put her foot in it whatever the situtation, takes a job as secretary at a London school on the recommendation of an old neighbour and discovers that the school educates all kinds of magical and fantastical youngsters, from vampires to ghosts and to dwarves and to banshees. General mayhem is the natural state of affairs at this school, but when first things and then kids go missing, she decides to play sleuth and thereby crosses the path of some dangerous people who are less than pleased at her knack of finding things out…

**********

OPTION 2

Working title: The Treasure in the Dunes

Genre: Children’s novel, Adventure

Story (very roughly): When Dan and his older sister are shipped off to their aunt in the wilds of Norfolk for the summer holidays because their parents need “time to sort things out” between them, he’s sure that it can’t get much worse. That is, until he meets his cousins, who run wild in the dunes and the forests and who despise him because he has glasses and comes from the city and is a pampered baby. When Dan discovers an ancient document, however, all four kids need to work together to find the treasure that has been hidden for so long.

**********

OPTION 3

Working title: Four Couples [this is the lamest title ever, but it’s all I can do right now]

Genre: Literary Fiction (???)

Story (very roughly): Eight people, four couples: one in a long-standing relationship, one that has just fallen in love, one that develops a love-hate relationship at first sight and one where fear stands in the way of love. Each person defines love differently and each has different expectations. Over the course of [a certain time] their relationships as couples, as family, as friends develop and happy ends are not always what they seem.

**********

So, which one’s the story of your choice? (I’m depending on you guys!)