Dawn of the shortest day

22 12 2012

Dawn of the shortest day

The world didn’t end, the sun rose over a silver-grey sea and the seagulls shouted their heads off as usual. Inches of light to come now.

Injury time

9 12 2012


In sport, more play time is given at the end of some games to compensate for time lost to injury. In life, there is no such luxury. Injury time is part of the ordinary run of time, and there are no bonus hours of living to make up for time lost in the playing. Injury time is headless of plans and projects and must be accommodated on its own terms.

Being injured is something I’ve forgotten. It is nearly eight years since my knee injury and I thought I had cured it with regular walking and exercise. After a couple of minor falls on slippery mud and on ice, my knee has given way again, and this time I know that it is more serious than the first time. This time I know that it will be months before I can return to the level of activity I was taking for granted less than a week ago.

In less than a week my world has both shrunk and grotesquely enlarged. When I look at ordinary spaces transformed into parkland for giants, I feel like Alice in Wonderland. On the first day, I couldn’t cross the kitchen. Today at the hospital, a car park stretched like an expanse of grey English Chanel. My car, on the other hand, feels like an old wellington boot: a perfect fit.

Like many people who use their minds for a living, I reside mostly in a non-physical space and regard my body as the other part of me, the bit that accompanies my head. I keep fit, eat my greens and generally look after my body, but my sense of ‘me’ is not my hands, chest, shoulders, hips, thighs, knees or feet. I am not my flesh and blood. If I were a horse, I would be located in my loins, or my heart, or my powerful lungs. If I were a dog, I would be my sense of smell or my hearing. If I were a cat, I would be my balance and my timing. If I were a mouse, I would be my nerve endings. A falcon? I would be my eyes.

Because I am human, I am my thoughts. There seems no escaping from this and it is why people wish to be birds and why a friend once said that that the reason we admire and love animals so much is because we envy them.

Being injured returns us to the body. I have become disproportionately right-kneed. I wake thinking about my knee and spend all day making adjustments for it so that the rest of me can come through. I feel subdued, muffled by my lack of vivacity and also bemused because I now have a stick, a particularly fetching aluminium standard NHS issue elbow crutch. It is useful. It is my rudder. Because straightforward walking is not easy, I’ve been dreaming of movement in other dimensions. I want to recapture fluidity. I want to dance, to run, to climb, to leap, to move unequivocally.

But in order to do so again I have to give injury time its proper due. So far, this has meant reading and eating a lot of chocolate. It has also meant this morning a visit to the mother of all magnets, the giant doughnut of the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. I was given yellow foam earplugs, but these still did not dampen the soundtrack that opened with clanging church bells and ran through a range of other frequencies including power drills, garage music, metal grinders and ships’ anchors being slowly winched ashore, and all of this was just action on my water molecules.

MRI scans work by rearranging the protons at the centre of each hydrogen atom, making them stand to attention all in one direction, like a magnetized cadet force. Protons pulled out of normal position emit radio signals and these can be mapped to create an image of the body. After the scan – it takes a surprisingly long 40 minutes – I asked the radiologist if I could see the pictures. He showed me one of the anterior ligaments still clinging to the bone and a blurred section inside the knee. ‘That all looks pretty mushy.’

Pretty mushy is accurate. My knee has the consistency of pond sludge. There is not much I can do to get things flowing again. Injury time will not be coerced; it will not be hurried. I must concede to it.

But still I can’t help wondering what I would do with the time if I were given say a fortnight at the end of my life to play out for free. Where would I go? What would I see? What would I stop doing immediately?

I’m going to have a think about this and report back next time

Writing in the dark

2 12 2012


When I first set out to write, I had no map. I put my mind into gear and lurched down the road, wobbling all over the place like the learner driver I was. Over months of practice I learned how to steer without mounting the kerb and stop at junctions and reverse round corners. Sometimes when approaching roundabouts I even remembered to give way to the right. When I felt pleased with my progress, I wound down the window and had a cigarette, usually while driving home down the dual-carriageway.

It took me four times to pass my test, though. Four novels: three published, one still in waiting for the right publisher and the right moment. Each one taught me something essential about going the distance.

Four novels equates to nearly half a million words. If as a teenager I had been told that I would spend most of my adult life sitting at a typewriter or in front of a screen searching for the right words, sometimes spending ten minutes or more on a single sentence, I would have taken a long walk, and not stopped until I had outpaced those demanding words. I was keen to get places fast, and using words properly would only slow me down.

Using words properly meant that I would have to think. I would have to organise some of the contents of my free-wheeling imagination. So much easier to let it cruise around in my head spinning nonsense.

I know. A lot of let’s-just -fling -words- around -for- the -hell-of -it writing is fun. It paints sparkles in the dark and doesn’t feel like ‘work.’ I used to doodle with words, but now I take notes. I suppose I’ve wasted too much time staring out of the window, and now I want to get on with it.

So, I try to have some idea of where I’m going before I set out. I have a plan, usually consisting of weeks of notes. These aren’t neat, underlined, colour-coded or useful to anyone else. You wouldn’t be able to look at my notes and see a blueprint of a novel or a piece of non-fiction in the making. You would think that they were scrappy and speculative. You would be puzzled as to how this writer ever gets to say what she is trying is say.

You wouldn’t be alone.

But these preliminaries are where it begins. I have grown to love making these notes. The first link, the first series of connections, the first surprise, and it all begins to snap into place. The notes give me the impetus to really begin.

Working with a map is about creating a frame. There is no picture inside, nothing except potential ideas. As it gets filled up, the frame may alter its dimensions. It may even change its style completely. Some years into a book a comment from an agent made me radically shift the frame from clean, modern and pared down to baroque gilt. All it took was for him to say: ‘I see this as grand opera.’ In that moment I saw how limiting was the frame I’d put around the book.

It took me another three years to pull off the grand opera, but that’s another story, possibly for my next post.  I’m interested in exploring how long books take to write because they always seem to take so much longer than I think.

Pretty much like all my journeys.

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