I haven’t written a lot in my blog this year because I diverted all my focus to my creative writing. One big step I took this year was undertaking a creative writing course at Hagley Writers’ Institute here in Christchurch, New Zealand. So I have been writing — a lot — but not for my blog. More on that later.
As I’m sure it feels like for many of us, this year has felt like a decade. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns, an attempted insurrection in America, disagreements with family and friends, the whole anti-vaccination thing and even squabbling over wearing a mask in public: it’s been a lot to cram into one year.
So I’m going to try to touch on three major positive events for me in 2021.
As many of my long-term readers, friends, and family know, I was diagnosed with the dissociative disorder known as depersonalization in November 2014. At the beginning of this year, I was struggling with depersonalization still, and it would flare up when I was in stressful situations. Being thrown into a class with people I didn’t know in an unfamiliar situation at an unfamiliar place really didn’t help (at first), but the more familiar I became with them and the more at-ease I became in class, the less the depersonalization flared up.
Around the end of June and beginning of July, a lot went on with counselling and the depersonalization.
(Bear with me here; I have to back up a bit to give some back story.)
In April, I had a very disturbing depersonalization experience where I was running late to have a term break get-together with my classmates, the dissociation kicked in, and I couldn’t figure out how to put my socks on. (A side effect of strong depersonalization can be cognitive impairment.) Trying to distract from that, going to the bathroom to check my hair and clothes in the mirror, the hand touching me felt like it wasn’t my own.
I wrote a short piece for consideration for a publication called The Quick Brown Dog (which is associated with Hagley Writers’ Institute) in response to their call for submissions about identity. The story about the socks seemed to fit in with my personal story about my loss of identity through depersonalization.
The story starts — and ends — with the statement of about not being able to put my socks on again. The middle, however, delves more into a fantasy realm where depression and anxiety are demons who intertwine to become a dragon known as depersonalization.
At the end of term 2 (June 2021), we had to read a piece of work we’d written or worked on to all our classmates, and “Socks” — the story about my depersonalization — was the piece I read.
The depersonalization kicked in moderately strongly again as I read the piece in front of my classmates. It was the first full piece I’d read to them (even though we had critiqued each other’s work previously). My hands were cold and numb. I felt outside my own body. I tried to speak as slowly and clearly as I could.
When I was finished, I returned to my seat. Our teacher rushed up and said how proud she was of us and started talking about my piece, and she seemed really excited and energized. That threw me off, and I started to cry. This whole really personal experience I’d laid down on paper was really well received, and I guess that was a relief for me.
(On a side note: “Socks” was published in Issue 5 of The Quick Brown Dog.)
I went to counselling a few days later, and my counselor basically said I wasn’t making any progress. It was a heartbreaking thing to hear, and it felt like one of the last safe spaces I had was ripped away from me. I felt like I lost my trust in him and any hope in myself. I even was so upset I wrote a social media post about the struggles and frustration.
Going away from that session and licking my wounds for a few days, I grew angrier. Something inside me shifted. I was a bit miffed — and I told him this in that session — that a person with depersonalization needs things laid out in black and white sometimes, and it seemed like in every session, there was this attempt to use reverse psychology on me: making a statement contrary to what the patient wants or needs in order to evoke a strong emotional response.
So I basically broke up with my counselor. Not much point shelling out a bit of money every other week if we’re getting nowhere. Like in many aspects of my life, I decided to go it alone for a while.
But the weird thing was, many people I know — my husband, my friends, my colleagues, even my classmates at Hagley — all said I seemed different. Happier. More engaged. More emotional. More present.
And the truth was, I was. Somehow leaving counseling after hearing that had the opposite effect; it made me better.
Am I 100% better? No. But I am a lot better than I was at the beginning of the year, or even in the middle of the year.
I also have to attribute that to getting back into creative writing.
I really hit the jackpot when I studied with Hagley Writers’ Institute.
My tutor Faith was great. My classmates were great. Everything was great.
(Okay, I admit, there were certain things I wasn’t overly thrilled with but the whole experience was pretty great.)
In those spaces when the feelings came back, I wrote. A lot.
Our end goal for the course was to complete a portfolio of writing. This could be a collection of short stories, a collection of poems, a part of a novel, or a combination of these. We didn’t know the word limit or story limit going into the course; we only found this out quite late in the piece (see the link above).
I like being prepared, so when I started off, my goal for my portfolio was:
- Poems surrounding my experiences with Number 10, a famous person once (fleetingly) in my life
- Some short stories (unrelated to one another) about people unwittingly caught in the orbit of fame or infamy
So there were “silos” — poems based on real life, stories based on fictional life — I would slot these things into. The overall theme would be being on the edge of fame. I thought this was an interesting topic to delve into.
We covered poetry over a few classes and also did a “haiku hike” in the middle of winter, and I came to the realization that poetry really was not something I am very good at (I personally don’t think).
I pivoted to short stories. In response to the call from SpecFicNZ for submissions for their 2021 anthology Aftermath, I wrote a story about how a foreigner living in Christchurch, New Zealand is coping with surviving a terrorist attack. Without giving too much away, this was an analogy to the Christchurch earthquakes and my experiences of driving past the same destroyed buildings on the same designated route past the closed-off city for years. However, in this case, being speculative fiction, it was an evil scientist who created large robots during a global war of superheroes that caused the devastation in Christchurch.
My teacher said, on more than one occasion, that the story haunted her and stuck with her for days.
That meant a lot to me.
(Side note: the story got accepted for publication in Aftermath, now pushed out to early 2022. It is the first piece of creative writing I will be paid for.)
Years ago, I had an idea for a short story anthology based around supernatural happenings throughout the world. Basically, the end of the world was coming, and these stories were about people coping with that or trying to fight against it.
One of the stories took place in a small, fictional town called Wolfram Grove. I hadn’t completed the story — just various drafts of it — so it was on the backburner.
What if I created a short story anthology around the edge of fame and infamy in that fictional town for my portfolio instead? The story I had in mind had two to three different elements of fame and infamy in it already. How could I expand that?
Ideas started filling my head, and I started writing. The original story would be made less supernatural and more questioning a protagonist’s sanity, and it would be split into two stories from two points-of-view, bookending the anthology.
In the end, I had around 14 to 16 short stories for inclusion in this anthology to turn in as my portfolio. 6 of them were pretty well developed and I had several more of them written partially or in a first draft.
Our teacher had spoken about how she loved stories that use the second person, and an idea came to me about how to bring a reader into Wolfram Grove itself. So I wrote a short story about a person (you) seeing the village for the first time, stopping in its decaying downtown, and visiting the historical society to find out more. As you start watching a video presentation, then the first story started.
It got some pretty good feedback and a good response, so I knew I was on to a winner there.
As a matter of fact, my teacher thought Wolfram Grove, Illinois was a real place. I’m not sure how she felt when I laughed and said no, it really isn’t a real place except in my head.
Over the July school holidays, my classmates and I met at The Place Where I Work during the weekends. Noel and I had finished watching a documentary series on Disney+ called Pride, each episode of which dealt with a major issue or major issues every decade in the LGBTQIA+ fight for equal rights. Somehow, my classmates and I started talking about good LGBTQIA+ documentaries and movies to watch, and this came up.
Having lived through the AIDS crisis as a child and young adult, that had a large impact on me and my life, and we had previously seen other documentaries more focused on this like How to Survive a Plague. I pivoted to talk about this with my classmates.
Something stuck with me, about the conversation, about the documentaries, and an idea for a story emerged. I wrote it, and it came out pretty spot-on the first draft.
And then a second story emerged. And a third. Three stories to add to my anthology for my portfolio, although I wondered if it would dominate it too much?
As a nod to the documentary, I called the stories “Plague”. Simply: “Plague I”; “Plague II”; and “Plague III”.
When we returned to class, I had completed these three major stories, and no one else really had anything ready for review. So despite the first story (“Plague I”) not being as edited as I liked, I submitted it to my classmates and teacher for critique.
A few of my classmates asked me if this had happened to me in real life. (No, it hadn’t.)
And then I was asked how much of it was based on aspects of my real life. (Really, other than having a German-born American-raised father with a big family and an uncle about 10 years older than me, none of it.)
Everyone gave me some really solid feedback — actually, my teacher (bless her) thought I was upset with it, but actually, I was mulling over in my mind how I could incorporate the feedback (I guess that makes me look grumpy or sad?) — and one big thing came out of the feedback was the story was much larger than the 5,200+ words that I’d written.
Let’s face it, I must’ve known that too. I mean, I’d written 2 additional stories related to the first one, so surely I must’ve had some inkling of that.
At first, I thought I would sit on those stories while I worked on others, and I did do that. I finished up some drafts of some other short stories for the portfolio, but my teacher saying she felt “Plague I” could be a novella or novel kept swinging me back to it.
We found out that our portfolio could be 5 short stories overall or a section of a novel up to 40,000 words. Having 16 short stories, one of which was 2 parts to bookend the anthology, another of which was 3 parts meant I had no wiggle room to expand on that and showcase the full extent of what I wanted to achieve in the anthology.
Basically, everything was pushing me towards making my “Plague” stories into a novella or a novel.
Unfortunately, the first try didn’t go very well as I expanded the story a bit too much, so, after writing around 6,000 new words (on top of the 14,500 I’d written originally for the “Plague” short stories), I scrapped it all and started again.
Between 1 September 2021 and when I turned my portfolio in on 18 October 2021, I wrote around 57,000 words to mostly complete the novel version of Plague. I know, I know: isn’t 57,000 words more than the 40,000 limit?
Yes. So I was cheeky and submitted the entire thing.
The good thing about Plague as it stands now is that it is broken up into sections; four major acts over four different years with intermission-type short pieces between the acts. There is also an epilogue.
So for my submission, I put a bunch of blue pieces of paper between the first half and the second half, and that gave me a submission of around 37,000 words.
I was proud of what I achieved in a short period of time while working full time. Luckily, the October school holidays gave me 2 weeks to concentrate fully on writing and revision.
Months later, Hagley released the long list. I wasn’t on it. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. (I need to add here, it was just general disappointment. I wasn’t angry at myself or the judges who read the work or anything like that. Just disappointed.) And I will admit that I wallowed in my self-pity and tried to avoid that as much as possible by doing what I do best when I feel like a big fucking failure; I threw myself into my work and shut myself off from the world a bit.
The whole COVID-19 thing and a shift to a new framework to deal with it in New Zealand didn’t help the work thing either. Lots of planning. Plus having neglected work a bit by not overworking (working outside of my work hours, et cetera) meant I had a lot to catch up on anyway.
Two of my classmates did make the long list, and honestly, I was happy for them. One of my classmates Moya didn’t feel she’d make it because she was working on a fantasy novel. But to be honest, I am not a huge fantasy reader, and I had the honour of reading it several times to critique it, and I loved it. I really felt she deserved it.
My other classmate Dave also paints such beautiful visions of New Zealand in his writing. So for him to make the long list wasn’t a surprise either.
(My other classmates also are amazing writers. Please don’t get me wrong. Each of them has certain skills I am very envious of, and I feel each of us is a good writer in our own distinct way.)
God bless my classmates, they could tell I was reeling a bit, and they bought me a custom-made tee-shirt, a card, and took me out to lunch. Only Moya could make it to lunch, and we did have a very wonderful conversation about everything from writing to our experience at Hagley to work and to life and everything in-between.
The short list was announced a few weeks later, and while Dave made it, Moya sadly did not. How she takes these things in her stride — and we spoke a lot about rejection and how it impacted us, and she seems to just let it roll of her back — I don’t know, but I admire her for it. I feel every rejection too deeply sometimes.
I said throughout the course, and even when we got together for our portfolio binding party on 17 October 2021, that I really hoped one of us would take out the top prize of the year.
Unfortunately, none of us in Faith’s class took out the top prize.
I also felt a bit hurt by that, strangely. I have come to care about these people and like these people and want the best for them, and here it was that none of us got the top prize in the end.
And then it dawned on me that we came out with something much better than that: camaraderie and friendship.
Our teacher kept saying how wonderful a group we are and how well we work together, and she is right.
All the prizes in the world couldn’t beat that.
Their friendship and care and feedback gave me so much more.
I seemed to beat back depersonalization because of them.
I got two short stories published because of them.
I cranked out a freakin’ novel-length piece of writing because of them.
I didn’t need the prize. I only needed them.
Star the Stray Kitten
Many of you have seen and heard of Jack, our neighbour’s cat. He’s a wonderful boy, and we are blessed to have him in our lives.
On 21 February 2021, he showed up with a black kitten, who looked malnourished and was very scared of everything. We normally fed (notice the past tense) Jack a tin of cat food every evening because he always acted like he was hungry. But on this evening, he let the black kitten eat all his food. She was ravenous.
She kept coming back, so we named her Star after the white patch on her chest looking like a star.
And we developed a routine pretty much. I feed her tins of food (into a bowl now as she has a deformed bottom jaw and 1 tooth on the bottom) every afternoon. And sometimes treats. And we added dry food to that mix too. Did I mention I started putting the dry food out in the morning too so she has more than one meal a day?
Star has become more and more trusting of us (me moreso than Noel for some reason), and no longer runs around on her belly around the place. As a matter of fact, she sleeps on our lawn or on the door mat or on top of the BBQ. She also talks to us and blows kitty kisses at us.
Her coat has become shiny and well-groomed, and she has grown into a cute young lady.
We’re hoping to be able to coax her to let us touch her — we can now but she usually hisses or backs away from us — so we can gain her trust and take her to the vet. (If we cage her or trap her, we think we’ll never see her again.)
It’s amazing how life brings people and animals and good things into your orbit sometimes.
I’m sure I have a lot more to share with you, but these are three major things that happened to me this year. I’m going into 2022 feeling a lot better about things personally. Now if we could end this pandemic and get me published, then we’d be talking.
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