Tag Archives: adversity

A Nightingale in Winter

Letter of Love and Fear is a story that compliments my novel A Nightingale in Winter.

Dear Mamma

I thought of you in the middle of the night as I crept down the stairs, avoiding the creaking step, silently counting until I reached the hallway without the aid of a candle. The grandfather clock was like a sentry as I squeezed myself into the kitchen. The kitchen smelled of beef stew and cakes, but since Mrs Crookes had left it all as shiny as a new pin, ready for the morning, I knew this was supplied by my imagination, reminding me of the small moments of comfort I have received in that room over the years. The kitchen is the most human room of the house. I shall miss it, Mamma. I shall miss the servants. I have been as close to them as I have been to any human being so far in this life, and it is bewildering to be striking out on my own. But it must be done.

Can you picture me, hiding in the scullery until the first embers of day break? As the sun came up over the hedge I knew I must leave, or risk an encounter with a kitchen maid, or Grooms with the firewood. So I fetched my valise from its hiding place in the wood shed and crept out into the chilly darkness to start my adventure. The train would not be at the station for another hour, so I concealed myself in a laurel hedge and settled down to wait. It was very dark and damp in there, and I fancied spiders were running from the glossy leaves and right down my neck. It was not in the least bit pleasant, but it was as nothing compared to my terror of being apprehended by Father before the train arrived. 

And so I stood still and allowed the spiders - be they real or imagined - to go where they willed until it was time to depart my hiding place to purchase my train ticket. This I did at the very last moment, leaving it until something of a queue had built up and there was less opportunity for conversation. "Going to London are you, Miss Martin?" "Yes, I'm going to France, to nurse the wounded."

Sometimes, Mamma, I ask myself if I would ever have escaped if the War had not come, but you and I both know the answer to that question, I think. I would not.

Your loving daughter,

Eleanor. 

4 Comments

This is my first blog post in a while. The last one - which I have just deleted - was written in the approach to Christmas when I was stressing about getting through the festive period with my mum visiting.

My mum could be a difficult person - hard to please at times, and quick to show her displeasure if things weren't right. We did experience that over Christmas, but we also had some joyful times, and created some happy memories for her. I'm extremely grateful for that, because Mum died on 8th March this year.

When I was growing up, I was always extremely close to my mum. From her, I got my love of the countryside and of trees, wild flowers, animals and nature. She taught me the colloquial names of the wild flowers we found, like eggs and bacon and snap dragons, and these captured my imagination.

Mum with her beloved dog Jasper on a hot summer day in the 1970s.

She made me and my brothers clothes, and said that in one green and white dress she made me, I blended in with the trees and the soft fairy grass that grew in our local wood.

Later, when I began to write, she was thrilled to pieces to receive a signed copy of my first book, and proudly collected copies of all the books that followed. She was my biggest fan, always encouraging me.

Ageing changed her, narrowing her focus to her own life and its slowly diminishing activities. But she loved us still, and I know her grandchildren gave her a huge amount of pleasure.

During the necessary business of sorting out her clothes and belongings I feel I have rediscovered the mother I remember from earlier times - it has been a delight to find our old Mother's Day cards and school projects safely stowed away in drawers and to revisit the love expressed within them.

I found her exam certificates and remembered all the times I helped her to revise - she trained as a primary school teacher in her early forties - and felt proud all over again at her achievements.

Before she died, I spoke to her almost every day at six-thirty in the evening. I know how much these phone calls meant to her because she frequently told me so. Sometimes they were an inconvenience to me, or a source of frustration when it seemed she just moaned and complained about everything, refusing to try to see any positives. Yet even at the time, as I listened to it all, a part of my mind told me that I would miss the calls when they had to end.

And I do.

Love you, Mum.

Mum at Dunwich Heath, Suffolk, 2015

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Today I want to talk to you about how Joan of Arc destroyed my self-confidence. Actually, that’s not right - my apologies to Joan. It’s not fair to blame her. It was all entirely my fault.

Or maybe the teacher’s for putting me under so much stress.

 

708px-joan_of_arc_on_horseback

 

But whoever was to blame, those few unhappy seconds in a French lesson when I was eleven years old had a dramatic effect on my self-confidence – an effect that lasted for almost twenty years.

Let me set the scene for you. I was newly transferred to the class, and painfully shy, so it was unfortunate that one of the first things I had to do was to give a talk in a French lesson. My allotted subject was Joan of Arc (for those of you who don’t know, Joan – otherwise known as Jeanne d’Arc – is a Fifteenth Century French saint). I duly did my preparation and went to stand nervously at the front of the class when it was my turn to speak.

Then I opened my mouth, and, with all eyes upon me, I said: “Joan of Arc was brought up as a pheasant.”

pheasant

 

I had, of course meant to say peasant – a country dwelling agricultural worker, not a large, colourful game bird – but nerves got the better of me, and I’m sure you can imagine the reaction that followed my slip up. There was general hilarity in the class, pretty much drowning out the rest of my faltering words.

 

giggle-608824_640

 

I expect my classmates soon forgot about it, entertaining as it was, but I certainly did not forget about it, and the incident affected me drastically. I clammed up almost completely after that – never saying anything at all in class unless I was forced to, and unfortunately this silence and terror extended to my life post-school. My extreme phobia about public speaking limited the courses I could take, and the jobs I could apply for.

Until finally, with my thirtieth birthday looming, I decided enough was enough. It was time to do something about this fear.

So, I did. Very gradually, until I proved to myself that I’d made a complete recovery by performing stand-up comedy to a crowd of two hundred people in a London comedy club. (I put my experiences into a novel!).

 

dare-club-cover1

So, how did I do it? By taking baby steps, and celebrating each and every one.

First of all, I joined an adult education class – I don’t even remember what it was about now – and then I challenged myself to make one statement, or to ask one question at every session. Then two statements or questions. Then three. (You can’t imagine how my heart pounded and my hands sweated as I willed myself to speak).

I did it just a little bit at a time, until I was ready (yikes!) to join a public speaking course. There, I made people laugh. Deliberately, this time. It felt fantastic. After that, I felt ready to take a teaching qualification. And I discovered that I loved the performance side of teaching. Everything about teaching, in fact. Then, eventually, came that three-minute stand-up routine at the Up The Creek Comedy Club in Greenwich, which was one of the greatest moments of my life so far, and the pinnacle of getting over my public speaking phobia, I’m sure you’ll agree. Every time I feel my self-confidence ebb a little bit, I just watch myself on YouTube and remember that I did it. I actually did it. The sense of achievement that night was incredible. On a par with holding my first published book in my hand…

 

me-doing-standup
Performing stand-up comedy at The Up The Creek Comedy Club in Greenwich, London

So, if you want to write, but something’s holding you back, find out what that something is. Be kind to yourself. Take baby steps to deal with it, and celebrate each and every one. Think in terms of asking a question in an adult education class, rather that a full-blown stand-up comedy performance straight away. Get support on your crusade. (Although maybe not from Joan!). Your efforts will be worth it, because all those little steps can add up to something bigger.

Like a novel!

Want to learn more about how fear can affect writers and what to do about it? Join my Feel The Fear Webinar on 20th October. If you can’t make it live, a recording will be available to those who register.

Oh, and just a reminder that the early bird price of my course Feel The Fear and Write Anyway ends on Sunday 24th October.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Margaret

 

 

 

When my son was younger, I used to read picture books from the That’s Not My… series to him.

If you’re not familiar with them, there are hundreds of books in the series – That’s Not My Truck, That’s Not My Robot, That’s Not My Monster, even That’s Not My Cow! The format is always the same – they start off with several pages of, That’s not my… for example, That’s not my monster, it’s eyebrows are too hairy. Then they finish on a triumphant That’s my… That’s my monster, his spines are so prickly. (Or whatever it is).

thats-not-my-monster

With my new course Feel The Fear and Write Anyway coming out soon, I’ve been thinking about author fears a lot lately, and in particular, about how people might not always think they have any fears about writing.

But if you’re:

  • procrastinating, and rarely getting any writing done,
  • constantly putting other people’s demands before your desire to write, or
  • you never finish anything, and you’ve got a drawer full of unfinished stories,

Then fear is probably at work somewhere, whether it’s a fear about what people will think of what you write, or an insecurity about everything you feel you don’t know about writing, or, quite simply, the strongest fear of all, a fear of failure.

Sometimes, recognising our monster – in this case, what lies behind our self-limiting fear – can help us to deal with it and move on.

After all, nobody wants to keep a monster for a pet, do they? Even if it does have a very fetching pair of horns!

monster-1274723_640

 

Cheers!

Margaret

 

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Let me introduce you to Emma. She’s fun to be around, enthusiastic about writing and very talented. These days she has established a writing routine that works for her, and she writes regularly, despite having four young children and a tendency to drop everything to go to music festivals.

emma-cropped

But it wasn’t always like that. Emma’s enthusiasm and talent for writing were always there, but the writing routine was non-existent, and whenever she thought about writing, she felt fed up and blocked.

This was all because of a bad experience she had at a writing class, where she received very unhelpful feedback on her work. Far from highlighting Emma’s achievements and constructively suggesting areas for further development, the tutor for this (somehow) sought-after course, slated Emma’s work. He pulled it apart so thoroughly that her self-esteem – and virtually her will to live – were in tatters.

I might never have met Emma at all. She might have decided to give up on her writing dreams at that point. But a few years later two of her friends told her about my courses, AND she had a link to the enrolment page pop up on her Facebook timeline. Fortunately for me, Emma decided to view this as fate at work, because Emma came along to one of my courses, and she’s a joy to have in a class. Not only is she talented, but she’s so helpful to other group members.

When Emma first told me about her ordeal, and how it had stopped her from writing for several years, I was furious. How dare that tutor treat Emma’s precious writing dreams like that?

Emma explained to me that she was writing science fiction, which was far removed from the literary fiction the tutor had published, but this was no excuse at all, as far as I was concerned. Published writers – no matter how successful – should never forget how vulnerable people can feel when they first start sharing their words. I know I certainly haven’t.

When I first started writing, I was ridiculously sensitive! I remember the first time I read out a story at a writer’s circle, and I described a woman’s face ‘turning a colour somewhere between green and purple’ (with embarrassment and horror). OK, I realise now that it’s not a sentence from a great work of literature, but at the time I was pleased with it, and was quite taken aback when one of the group members stated quite abruptly that it wasn’t possible to have a colour between green and purple, and that I should use the word puce. Puce. I wasn’t even sure what the colour was, and I had to go home and look it up. And it was such a horrid word, sounding as it did, remarkably like…well, sick. My story was light-hearted and fun, with no pretensions to be anything else. Puce just didn’t fit. I felt discouraged, and never returned to the writer’s circle. (I told you I was sensitive in those days!)

As I’ve gained in experience and had many novels published, my self-confidence has grown to the point where I’m able to sift through feedback and make a judgement about whether it’s relevant and helpful or not. (If it’s from an editor, I’ve also learnt to be tactful if I don’t think so!) I always make a point in my writing classes of helping my students to develop the highly useful skill of giving and receiving constructive feedback. It’s such an important part of a writer’s development, because you can learn so much from it.

When I began teaching my creative writing classes, I encountered that vulnerability and that fear of exposure over and over again, and decided that my classes had to include an element of confidence-building in order to be of use to people.

As for Emma, she very kindly took part in the pilot version of my course Feel The Fear and Write Anyway – Self-Confidence For Authors, which opens for enrolment very soon. I asked Emma and other recent students to try it out and to give me feedback, so that I could make it as useful as possible. The power of feedback, see? I’m happy to say that all their suggestions were really helpful – and constructive!

I’m so excited that by creating an online course designed to boost writers’ self-confidence while they’re developing essential writing skills and habits, I’m going to be able to help people I might not otherwise have been able to reach. People who want to take that first step towards realising their writing dreams. Or, if they’re like Emma, people who want to recover from a set-back to move on towards their goal of completing a novel.

I can’t wait!

Enrolling soon!
Enrolling soon!
Sign up for the FREE Fear-Busting Challenge for Authors here.
Sign up for the FREE Fear-Busting Challenge for Authors here.

 

 

 

 

A post that first appeared on author Jane Bye's The Breath of Africa blog.

When I travelled to Cuba in 2001, it was with revenge in mind. Don’t worry, I didn’t smuggle any weaponry into the country in my luggage. I simply chose Cuba as a destination because I’d been learning Spanish with my ex-partner, and I knew that Cuba would be a country he’d love to visit. But he wasn’t here. I was. And after I’d got beyond the unbelievable chaos of the arrivals lounge, it was to be a fortnight of amazing experiences and fun.

It was around six months since my relationship had suddenly ended, and I was still feeling very raw. Fortunately, I palled up quickly with Sharon, a fun-loving Londoner I’m still friendly with today. Together we wondered at the near-empty supermarket shelves, gazed in awe at the crumbling buildings and were chauffeured in classic cars.

Cuban taxis, courtesy of Sarah Morgan
Cuban taxis, courtesy of Sarah Morgan

We visited cigar factories, learned about black magic and the Revolution, and spent a crazy hour making – and wearing – fake Castro beards out of catkin seeds stuck onto double-sided sellotape. We played and we laughed, and we fell in love with Cuba with the ever-present images of Che Guevara looking down on our shenanigans. It was absolutely the best gift I could have given my broken heart.

 

Messing about with fake Castro beards
Messing about with fake Castro beards

Murder Maker - A Story of Revenge

When I returned to the UK, I was to use Cuba as a setting for scenes in two books. First came Murder Maker, a novella for the TEFL market aimed at people learning to speak English. It’s about woman who becomes a serial killer as a result of being cruelly dumped by her partner. Yes, I admit it, it was my therapy book.

 

 

 

 

 

Later, I wrote For Hannah With Love. In For Hannah, With Love, I wanted to move two of my female characters out of their usual environment to throw a spotlight on the nature of their friendship.

 

Havana proved to be perfect for this. The rambling, decaying streets of Havana play on your imagination and feel full of mystery and the potential for adventure. Even danger. Just right for the dynamics of a friendship to be exposed. Jen, one of my main characters in For Hannah, With Love, is a bit adrift as a person; carried on the tide of other peoples’ wishes and desires. Her time in Cuba acts as one stepping stone to her taking back control of her life, Just as, I suppose, my time in Cuba did for me.

 

A friend of mine recently spent four days in Havana and was just as enthralled with it as I was all those years ago. From what she says, it’s hardly changed at all, right down to the near-empty supermarket shelves. Which obviously I realise, can hardly be a good experience for its people. They are extremely resourceful people though; you’d have to be to be able to keep all those amazing classic cars on the road year after year.

Faded colour, Cuba, courtesy of Sarah Morgan
Faded colour, Cuba, courtesy of Sarah Morgan

So, I want to finish off by thanking them and their country for what they gave me for those two weeks I visited. I arrived feeling completely vulnerable and depleted, and left with a thousand experiences and memories to bring my characters and stories to vibrant life.

It was a magical time, and I shall never forget it.