Life's lucky dip
I’m getting fed up with this. Or as my friend Marilyn wrote on Facebook recently: “I’m done”.
And I am ‘done’. I’ve had enough of not knowing when this pandemic is going to end, and when I’ll be able to have friends for dinner safely. I’ve had enough of worrying that I might be asymptomatic and putting those I do come almost into contact with (no hugging) at risk. This morning in the shower I found myself comparing how I’m feeling to desperately searching in a ‘bran tub’ for hidden treasure.
Are you familiar with the ‘bran tub’? Some call it a ‘lucky dip’. When I was growing up I’d love visiting to local village fetes on a summer Sunday afternoon when locals would man stalls such as the coconut shy, the ‘bash a rat’ and the hoopla. My favourite game stall, without a doubt, would be the ‘bran tub’. I’d pay my sixpence, or whatever, and wait in line to be able to bury my arms past their elbows in a deep, dry, gritty barrel of wood-shavings, until my grasping fingers landed on a prize. A worthless, plastic prize most probably, but finding it would make feel like the luckiest girl in the world. You’d always want to get to the bran tub early in the afternoon, because the earlier you visited the more prizes were buried in the bran and the greater your chance of striking oil.
So, this morning, as I squirted Aesop body wash into my palms, I got to thinking how life, right now, after 130 days of lockdown, feels like scrabbling around in the bottom of a bran tub in the late afternoon, hoping against hope that there was still something worth having lurking there.
Writers get most of their ideas by ‘getting out there and doing stuff’. I’m endlessly inspired to write by the places I visit, usually overseas, and the people I meet, the conversations I have and the things I notice when I am ‘out’. At a time like this the opportunities to do the things I need to do in order to feel ‘writerly’ are limited. It’s hard to come up with new things to write about. It’s scraping the bottom of the barrel.
What’s left then when the new places, people and experiences have shrunk to nothingness? What’s left to get those creative juices flowing? Well, I have noticed that what’s left, what is always left, is how you feel about it. The emotion.
When I teach people how to write with SPICE (Specifics, Place, Incident, Character and Emotion) in order to create compelling stories, the easiest three to master are S, P and C. During lockdown we have less I, but even now there is never any shortage of E. We have loneliness, boredom, frustration, confusion, sadness, bitterness, anger, sure. But we also have what I call ‘pockets of joy’, the times when you realise life has slowed down enough to allow you to notice the lingering scent of geranium long after your Aesop body wash has been placed back on the shelf. The bliss of being able to sit outside a café again with a flat white and how you eat the tiny cookie in the saucer in four bites rather than stuffing it in whole, noticing it was chocolate chip today.
I have a book beside me on my desk called The Poetry Pharmacy. In its pages there are poems designed to help you through the toughest of emotions: depression, lack of courage, obsession, displacement, grief, losing the spark. But even here, in a sad poem, there is joy to be found in the way it resonates, how it makes you see the situation a little differently and, importantly, how this emotion was the catalyst for something of great beauty – a poem.
I challenge you, today, when you too feel that life’s lucky dip is getting old and dry, to examine what might still be left there at the bottom of the barrel after all – how you feel.
Now go write about it.
Finding your story
I knew I was going to like Rachel from the outset.
I’d already logged into to Zoom and was a few minutes early so got up from my desk to unpack the natty new light I’d just bought that’s supposed to make me look better for the videos I put up online. Reaching for the box, I lifted the flap and four individually wrapped items clattered to the floor. I stooped to pick them up and heard a peel of laughter coming from the computer. Rachel was early too and had stumbled upon a view of my upended behind.
This was Dr Rachel Cason, British by nationality and, freakily, after growing up overseas, now based in Lincoln, the nicest, nearest city to the place we have just bought a house in England.
I’d been keen to meet her for a while. Her name was becoming increasingly familiar as she kept popping up in some of the Facebook groups I frequent and I had become intrigued by the name of her business: Life Story Therapies.
As you will know, I’ve been teaching people to write life stories for over a decade now and my two programmes, The Life Story Jar and Write Your Life Stories, have been experienced by hundreds of people all over the world, online and in person. If I can learn anything more about how to excavate, interpret, understand and express your life experiences then I’m on it. I take the class. I buy the book and I meet the expert. Rachel is one of those experts.
Growing up overseas as what is known as a TCK (Third Culture Kid), Rachel is no stranger to the conundrum faced by global nomads when asked the question: “Where are you from?” She knows how many people wrestle with concepts such as home, identity and belonging and how transition and culture can impact a life. During her PhD research she realised how a client’s life story could be the perfect place to start a counselling journey.
“You have to know your own story in order to bring any kind of truth to your character,” she explains. “Often we all create a pre-prepared version of who we are that we churn out when we meet people, but, like a Russian doll, this is only on the outer layer.”
As she went on to share with me the kind of questions she asks her clients in a two-hour preliminary intake session, I realised how helpful such questions would be for anyone who wants to write their life story or memoir. For, once a question has been asked, Rachel goes on to ask how an experience made them feel, what happened next and a variety of other pertinent questions that can reveal so much. Such deep personal exploration can only help the writer to portray themselves in an authentic and plausible way.
I was so excited to hear what Rachel had to say that I wanted to share this wisdom with you, to connect you with her and to let you see what her wisdom could add to your writing. Right away I booked her for an In Conversation video interview with me.
If you want to know more about Rachel and Life Story Therapies you can visit her website at explorelifestory.com or you can visit my Virtual Events page and sign up to our In Conversation interview on 15th October at 1pm UK time. It’s free of charge and a recording will be put on my website and YouTube later. However, it is only by attending the live event that you will be able to take part in the Q and A.
I’m so glad I have met Rachel and can’t wait to introduce her to you too. Hopefully I will have sorted out how to use that light by then.
Join me in Tuscany next August
Two new opportunities to learn from moi
Sadly, this year my writing retreats had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. I know you won’t be surprised. Next year, however, the dates for my wonderful, annual Start Writing Your Life Stories course at the luscious (and now air-conditioned) Watermill at Posara in Tuscany, is set and a few places remain for 14-21 August 2021.
See what Isabella said of the course:
“Jo is an excellent teacher; precise, relaxed and humorous who enabled everyone on the course to find their unique voice and speak from the heart."
I’d love to see you there next year. Simply head to the mill for more details or email me for the course programme.
Kick-Start Your Book with a Book Writing Circle
I’ve not been idle during lockdown and am delighted to tell you that I have now devised, trialled and completed a new Book Writing Circle programme. Created for new authors who have an idea of their book’s focus already but need support, materials, accountability and feedback to kick-start the process, this might be for you.
Only four places are available for each one and authors are hand-picked by me to fit in with the groups so you may have to wait a while for your turn, but, if this might be for you, please email me so I can send you an application form.
I’ve created two:
Successful applicants receive seven two-hour live online group sessions in addition to 90 minutes assessment from yours truly.
See what Becky said of the programme:
“Thank you so much, Jo, for sharing your expertise, good humor, insightful analysis, and feedback with us. I really enjoyed our group and it was great to get us kickstarted on this journey together. I look forward to eventually finishing that book and making you proud!”
The September Kick-Start Your How-To Book circle is now full so I’m taking enquiries for January.
The Kick-Start Your Memoir circle is taking enquiries for a November start.
Spot the difference
There is so much to notice that’s different right now and yet, I believe, if we don’t make the effort to write about the changes they’ll seep into the subconscious and this moment will be lost forever.
Take this photograph, taken at the Tempelhof airport in Berlin over the weekend. Yes, yes, we just ‘went somewhere’ for the first time since the coronavirus changed our world and made it suddenly so much smaller. Built by the Nazis in 1927, Tempelhof was once one of the 20 largest buildings on earth but closed in 2008. It’s a desolate yet imposing place where silence echoes in the abandoned arrivals hall, the corridors and the hangars. That the departure board showed no departures and no arrivals was no surprise. That the 20 of us taking a guided tour had been asked to used hand-sanitizer and don our face masks on arrival felt stifling and strange in the airless indoor spaces thick with summer heat. I found it challenging and hated how breathless it made me and how flustered. I frequently had to lift the metal strip at the top away from the bridge of my nose and let the heat escape. Unless I was careful to arrange my glasses so that they sat onto of the cloth they’d steam up. Every now and again I’d check no one was looking, turn my back on the group, and pull my mask away from my face for a few moments to remind myself how to breathe normally again. I felt wicked.
In the Netherlands, where I live, facemasks are currently only compulsory on public transport. In Germany they must be worn every time you go inside a café to pay or use the loo, in shops, service stations, museums and galleries. Dropped facemasks litter pavements like hastily removed g-strings; they hang from bicycle handlebars and rearview mirrors and drape from the branches of lime trees. I noticed them because this is currently a new phenomenon but soon these discarded cloth masks will become so normal they become invisible. Like we no longer notice how plastic bags litter the roadside, that graffiti now decorates the trains and that Mars bars are much smaller. Everyone has a facemask to hand over there and as we sat at pavement cafés for every meal, we were no longer startled by having to scan a QR code to see the menu, to fill in a form with our address for contact tracing purposes or that the wait staff wore masks while the customers were spared.
In the beginning each time you encounter the handgel, the masks, the duct tape dividing lines on the pavement and the signs on every shop door declaring whether you need to take a basket and how many people are allowed inside, your heart picks up the pace. You learn to live with a heightened level of anxiety and panic rises each time you realise you rubbed your eye without washing your hands first. But soon it won’t be like that.
It’s too easy to take elements of ‘the new normal’ for granted. I have become used to queuing outside the supermarket and never using cash. But it won’t be long until the day I leave the house without wearing my face mask like a necklace will make me feel strangely naked and I’ll be mortified.
So write about it in your journal, scribble a poem, write your own Life in The Day account of your typical working day. Be mindful of what has changed. Pay attention. Notice things and please write them down while they are fresh. Consider what the discarded facemasks look like, take photographs, keep a record. That’s what writers do.
Jo Parfitt's Monthly Inspirer