Beating post-publication blues

One of the sections in my little ebook Wellbeing for Writers draws some fanciful parallels between writing a book and having a baby. There may be feelings of depression following publication (“birth”), and a time interval before being able to conceive another book (“child”).

Some writers manage to avoid such problems by keeping two or more books in different stages of completion on the go at any one time. I have never managed this myself, preferring to focus all my energies on a single project. I felt quite euphoric after my latest novel You Yet Shall Die had been published and received positive reviews. But my mood slumped after the initial peak of sales had subsided, because I did not have another novel in mind.

However, knowing that the best remedy for post-publication blues is to keep writing, I asked my husband Brian if I could edit some of his autobiographical essays and collate them into a memoir. So that is what I am working on now. Brian grew up during the 1930s in what was then a downmarket seaside settlement on Auckland’s North Shore. His ambition to become a doctor was inspired by an inpatient stay in a tuberculosis unit when he was 18. He graduated from the University of Otago, and having decided to specialise in mental disorders, obtained a training post at the Maudsley Hospital in London. During his three years there he worked for some of the most eminent psychiatrists of the day, and had experiences ranging from daily psychoanalysis to taking LSD. After leaving the Maudsley, Brian joined the Medical Research Council’s unit in Chichester, to study the clinical and epidemiological aspects of suicide.

Another remedy for the post-publication blues is to take a break from writing and do something completely different. Outdoor activities here in Auckland are a pleasure now that spring has arrived; the flowers are in bloom, and it is (just) warm enough to swim.

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Two brave women

My list of non-fiction recommendations for 2019 will include two biographical books about women who sustained life-changing injuries in middle age. By coincidence, both books arrived together from my local library last week, and I noticed several similarities between their subjects: both were born in the late 1950s, grew exceptionally tall and athletic, worked as journalists for the Times newspaper group, and were injured as a result of their chosen activities. But the nature of their traumas, and their ways of coping, were very different.

My former medical career brought me into contact with many people recovering from serious illness or injury. Emotional responses varied tremendously. Initial distress usually resolved, being replaced by the capacity to accept and cope even with longterm impairment, often including some positive changes in attitudes, beliefs, relationships or way of life. But not everyone was able to adjust, and some were left with ongoing psychiatric symptoms. Given the complex interplay of biological, psychological and social factors unique to each case it is unwise to generalise or to predict individual responses, and blanket advice to “think positive” or show a “fighting spirit” can be unhelpful. The stories of the women in these two books illustrate this diversity. 

Melanie Reid (1957 – ) was thrown from her horse in 2010 when he refused a cross-country jump. She sustained spinal fractures which rendered her tetraplegic apart from having limited function in her right hand. Her memoir The World I Fell Out Of describes the months she spent in hospital, and subsequent years back at home with her husband. The practical limitations of being largely confined to a wheelchair mean that the mundane essentials of living – washing, dressing, toileting, eating and drinking – require assistance, and occupy a large part of each day. The inability to move, the bodily disfigurement, the loss of sexual attractiveness, being deprived of the sense of touch, have a huge emotional impact for patients themselves and for those close to them. To a healthy person all this might sound so horrific that it would inevitably lead to deep despair and the desire to end it all. Spinal cord injury is in fact one of the few medical disorders shown to be associated with a raised suicide rate (Harris and Barraclough 1994). Melanie Reid does make brief reference to considering a one-way trip to Switzerland, and to taking antidepressants, but on the whole her mood stays upbeat. With tenacious determination to work on rehabilitation, her physical function improved much more than her doctors predicted. She was eventually able to drive a car, and even return ride a horse until she was thrown off again and suffered further injuries. She has overcome this setback, and continues to channel her mental energy into writing. This book, and her “Spinal Column” in The Times, contain frank and often darkly humorous accounts of life following her accident.

Marie Colvin (1956-2012) lost the sight of one eye after being shot in the face and chest by snipers in Sri Lanka in 2001. In Extremis: the life of war correspondent Marie Colvin, written by her friend and colleague Lindsey Hilsum, gives a comprehensive account of her life and complex character. Described as brave, passionate, driven, intellectually outstanding, beautiful, glamorous and generous, she has been hailed as the greatest war correspondent of her generation. Yet quotations from her diaries reveal an inner insecurity and her personal life was tumultuous, marked by heavy drinking and smoking and a succession of doomed love affairs. The optic nerve injury, though not the main focus of the book, was a watershed. Her blind eye had been preserved and looked normal from outside, but she always covered it with a large black patch: “part of me in a way, something that would make a clear division between life before and after”. She also replaced all her clothes with those of a more “architectural” cut than her previous “lacy or flowing styles”. As soon as she was physically fit she resumed assignments in the Middle East but worsening nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety and depression eventually forced her to take leave and undergo psychiatric treatment for post traumatic stress disorder. Over the next few years, while her intrepid forays into war zones and graphic dispatches brought international acclaim, her private life became increasingly miserable and chaotic. She was killed by a rocket attack in Syria in 2012.  

Inevitably, reading such stories makes me wonder how I would cope with a life-changing injury myself. And it could happen to anyone, even someone like me who is neither athletic nor adventurous and is not attracted to extreme sports or situations. My most demanding activity is dog-walking and even this can be hazardous – I have already had two bony fractures due to being knocked or pulled over by excited canines. Both injuries have healed perfectly but I know they could have been much worse, in which case I very much doubt that I would have been able to marshal such courage and determination as that shown by Marie Colvin or Melanie Reid. But none of us can predict how we will respond if faced with a health challenge of such magnitude as theirs. 

 

 

Diary: Happy Sunday

This post about a day in my life was written mainly as a record for myself, and may or not be of interest to anyone else.

Daylight saving in New Zealand ended yesterday and so I got up even earlier than I usually do on Sundays, to catch the ferry into downtown Auckland for choir rehearsal before Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral. It was going to be a full day, as I had been asked to give a reading at the SPCA‘s annual Blessing of the Animals service at St Matthew’s in the City in the afternoon. And then, if I was back home in time, go to a tea party at our neighbour’s house.

I had had a migraine the day before; not the terrible kind I used to get when I was younger, confining me to bed with a bursting headache and repeated vomiting, but bad enough to make the simplest tasks seem like onerous burdens. Every cloud has a silver lining and, after recovering from one attack, there is always at least a week before the next. So despite missing an hour’s sleep, I was migraine-free on the Sunday and able to enjoy all the activities planned for the day.

Choir promised to be a challenge because along with two traditional items from our repertoire, Almighty and Everlasting God by Orlando Gibbons and Jesu Thy Blessed Name by Douglas Mews, we were to give our first performance of Oh For the Wings of a Dove by Felix Mendelssohn. There are only three of us in the alto section and our part is not very easy. But if we did make any mistakes I think they would have passed unnoticed by the congregation as they listened to the beautiful soprano solo and organ accompaniment of this piece.

Mass finished quite early so I had time to sit outside in the spring sunshine and eat my sandwich lunch before walking up to St Matthew’s.

The Animal Blessing Service used to be an even bigger event than it is nowadays, preceded by a procession up Queen St and including larger animals such as donkeys, goats and once even a black bull. Now it is confined to the church itself and dominated by dogs of all shapes and sizes, all apparently having a good time and some barking their heads off. The few cats in their cages kept very quiet. I was unable to bring my dog-share Labrador Ireland, but he would no doubt have caused chaos with his enthusiasm for jumping on top of other dogs and “helping” with my reading.

Animal blessing St Matthews

Besides the prayers and readings we heard three sweet songs from a children’s choir, and a wise and witty address from SPCA’s regional manager about what we could learn from dogs. They never cease to find joy in familiar everyday activities and things, and to show curiosity about new ones. They know the value of long rests, and are not governed by to-do lists. They are free of expectations and blame; if their owners come home late they are simply delighted to see them. They have an endless capacity for love.

After two afternoon teas, first with SPCA colleagues and then with the next-door neighbours, it was home to cook the supper and watch the final episode of Hitler’s Circle of Evil on Netflix. This may sound an incongruous choice, but it is an excellent series which has helped to expand my knowledge about the history of World War II, relevant to the interviews with Bomber Command veterans that I am currently carrying out for the IBCC and will describe in a later post.

2017

I sometimes regret not having consistently kept a diary during my life. But, better late than never, perhaps a blog is the next best thing. I started blogging a few years ago now and for a while I had several sites devoted to different categories such as writing, health, Bach flowers and cats. This became rather cumbersome so, even if it meant having fewer followers, I decided to combine them here. Most of my blog posts, while inspired by some recent experience of my own, aim to provide a brief overview of a topic that could be relevant to others. This present post summarising my past year’s activities is a more purely personal one, written as a record for myself and possibly of interest to a few relatives and friends.

The outstanding feature of 2017 was exploring the Irish side of my family. With the help of FinderMonkey, AncestryDNA, Rootschat and some extraordinary coincidences I discovered two half-siblings I did not know about, and had successful meetings with them both. To respect the privacy of those involved I won’t give any further details here, but it has been a remarkable experience.

Meanwhile life back in Auckland has continued on an even keel and I am happy to report that Brian has maintained a good recovery from his major cardiac surgery of 2015. He remains active physically and mentally, usually beating me at online Scrabble. My own less serious health problems are under control and I have kept up my fitness regime of Zumba Gold classes and daily cold water swims. Rather than move into one of the retirement villages that are proliferating around Auckland, we have decided to stay in our old Victorian villa with its large garden, ideal for our three cats, and pool. Following the sale of my mother’s house we have undertaken some repairs and improvements, so the inside is now ​warmer and more comfortable​, and renovation of the exterior woodwork will take place next year​.

I continue my involvement with SPCA, helping to raise funds for a Satellite Centre to care for abused and unwanted animals on the North Shore, though with regret I have given up doing regular sessions at the Animal Village because increased traffic congestion has made the commute so long. I am currently exploring other volunteer opportunities with the Heart FoundationInternational Bomber Command Centre and DogShare Collective. I ​am ​still in the alto section of St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir​,​ and attempting to sing soprano in a “Pop-Up Chorus” with NZOpera. I also see a few Bach Flower clients and recently had some success treating an anxious dog. ​

Inspiration for w​riting ​has been somewhat lacking since I published my short memoir at the beginning of the year, though I have made a tentative start on a new novel. Sales of my existing ​books trickle along slowly. Much as I dislike the marketing aspect I know I need to make more effort to stand out from the hordes of other indie authors, and have updated my profile pages on Smashwords.com, Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
I am planning to visit England again in 2018. Brian no longer enjoys long haul travel so won’t be coming with me, but we have booked to go to Australia together for a medical conference and a trip on the Indian Pacific train.
A Happy Christmas to all my readers.

JenniferBarraclough-17

Two churches

This morning I attended 11 a.m. Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland, as I have done almost every Sunday morning for seventeen years. Being a member of the choir, I watch the proceedings from up in the organ loft.

cathedral mass

Services at St Patrick’s are traditional, based on the same format that has been used for centuries in Catholic churches all over the world. In the choir we mostly sing classical four-part motets, in either English or Latin; today’s programme included Call to Remembrance (Farrant), O Lord Increase my Faith (Gibbons) and Ave Verum Corpus (Elgar). Singing such pieces requires concentration, but there is also time to appreciate the beauty of the liturgy and the music, and the prayerful atmosphere of the setting.

After a brief lunch break I walked up the road to St Matthews in the City for a very different experience at the annual Blessing of the Animals service organised by the SPCA. The church was packed with people and animals, mostly dogs, some of them extremely active and vocal. The programme of hymns, songs from a school choir, poems and talks was mainly cheerful, though some aspects – lighting a candle for pets who have died, and prayers for animals who suffer abuse – were quite emotional.

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It is said there are many spiritual paths, all equally valid. Today’s two services could hardly have been more different, but both were uplifting.

 

Style after 70

With spring on the way, this feels like a good time to sort out my wardrobe. Despite my policy of giving away one garment whenever I get a new one, I have too many clothes and some of them no longer seem suitable.

Circumstances, priorities and bodies change with advancing age, often calling for adaptations in dress style. Some older women become more adventurous and frivolous, following the latest fashion trends or putting purple highlights in their hair. Some stick to a safe formula such as wearing only black, white or navy blue. Some have clearly lost all interest in their appearance, and opt for the comfort and convenience of old tracksuits. Personally I have become rather more conservative, aspiring to a simple practical and classic look, and hoping to avoid any impression of “mutton dressed as lamb”. So all my shorts and jeans, and anything too brightly coloured, will be going to the charity shop.

But other superfluous garments are hard to part with. Some have sentimental value because they were given to me by someone I care about, or bring back memories of a special occasion. Some that were quite expensive to buy have become faded and out of date, having languished too long in the cupboard being “saved for best” and hardly ever worn. Some are old favourites that I still wear a lot, but probably shouldn’t because they look awful if I happen to see them in a photo of myself. Others simply “might come in”. I suppose it is an exercise in letting go of the past and I could apply Marie Kondo’s advice to “keep only clothes that bring you joy”, as described in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

My long-held ideal is having a wardrobe planned according to a logical system: a certain number of clothes of each type for each season, all colour-coordinated of course. Despite many attempts over the years I have never quite managed to achieve this. Fashion – and life – is always changing, and can never be perfect.

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On turning 70

Today was my 70th birthday. I had been dreading this particular milestone, despite telling myself that it is pointless to feel defined on the basis of age, and that I know plenty of people who are still going strong not only over 70, but over 80 or 90 or even 100. Despite my misgivings I don’t feel any older than usual this evening, and I had a lovely day including lunch with friends at a seaside restaurant in the glorious sunshine of our New Zealand summer, and a big bouquet from husband Brian.

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Ageing has many negative aspects, but also some positive ones. Ideally, it is said to be a time of contentment, enhanced wisdom and spirituality, liberation from old constraints and perhaps a chance to start something new. I’ve ordered a book called 70 things to do when you turn 70, no doubt full of inspirational ideas along these lines. For myself I have few ambitions at present, though having just finished the memoir that will be described in my next post, I do hope to write more books. And in my next life I would like to learn to fly. Meanwhile I appreciate being in happy circumstances and good health – having finally grown out of the severe migraine attacks that blighted most of my adult life is a huge bonus. It is a relief to be free of the responsibilities of paid work, and seldom having to do anything unless I want to, although I still feel an obligation to spend my time on something “useful” and am not comfortable with a life of pure leisure. The free travel pass is very nice too.