Friday, June 19, 2015

Flash Frontier - send us your science-themed flash stories!

I'm back from an amazing trip, will blog about it here soon - but in the meantime, I am a guest editor, along with the absolutely wonderful Kathy Fish (whose flash collection, Together We Can Bury It, sits by my bed so I can dip into it in times of need) for the September issue of New Zealand flash fiction online journal Flash Frontier, which we decided would have a science theme. So please wow us with your flash stories, up to 250 words, in some way using or inspired by science. We are open to all sorts and flavours of story, in any shape or form, so let your imaginations lead the way! Deadline is Aug 31st.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mi Madre Era Un Piano Vertical

Am still on my travels - and oh my, what wonderful travels they have been, Mexico was the most welcoming and magical! - but just had to share this with you: I woke up to see that my short short story is in today's El Universal, one of Mexican's daily newspapers, translated into Spanish! You can see it (or, if unlike me, you speak Spanish, you can read it) here... The title is Mi Madre Era Un Piano Vertical - guess which story!

I feel so honoured, we got so much press coverage, the short story writer as (temporary) celebrity! I know it'll never happen again so I just enjoyed it. Will blog more when I get home!

ADDENDUM: I missed that they have also published a translation of another of my stories, The Painter and The Physicist. 

Saturday, June 06, 2015


I'm delighted to be heading off to Mexico this week as one of two short story writers - together with Paul McVeigh - given the honour of being the first of a veritable slew of writers the British Council's sending to Mexico this year! We are each doing two events - one in Mexico City, and then I head to Monterrey and Paul to Tijuana. If you happen to be nearby, details are here! And on this lovely poster above, I believe (sadly, I speak no Spanish)!

I'm really looking forward to visiting a country I've wanted to visit for many many years, and learning more about Mexican literature, the short story in particular. I feel ashamed at how little I do know, partly because of how little we get in translation over here. I am immensely excited at meeting the writers I'm doing events with - Monica Lavin, Emiliano Monge and Atonio Ramos Ravillas.

I'm also delighted that this fabulous new anthology that I am honoured to also be in, Flash Fiction International, contains a disproportionately large number of Mexican writers. From this I suspect that I will find many flash fiction and short story sympathizers! I will report back. Promise.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Some Thoughts on Kindness, Energy Levels and Introversion

I haven't written a blog post like this for a while, an attempt to tie all my current thoughts together into some sort of whole (for which I will not claim coherence). I suspect that I might find out what it is I want to say through the writing of it, which is, often, how this writing thing works. So. Kindness. This is a concept, an action, that has become almost the most important thing for me, the thing I try and practice above all else. Kindness towards others, whether I know them or not, and - hardest of all - towards myself. When I say "kindness" it has deeper ramifications than just smiling, saying something nice, it is, for me, about dealing with other people ethically, mindfully. Hard to actually say more precisely what I mean by that, maybe because it's always evolving, which I think is how I want it to be.

But basically we know what kindness, thoughtfulness, mindfulness and compassion mean, in large terms. And when I say "practice", that is accurate because in my experience it takes practice, it takes vigilance, it is not my default, it takes work. We do seem to be programmed to be defensive, to look for a tribe to join and to privilege, rather than seeing everyone around us  - and further afield - as human beings in the same boat, with the same struggles. And, trying to be kind here to myself, I'm not going to come up with a list of excuses for why this is. It's easy to let go, lose sight.

The thing is, actively trying to change one's behaviour, to rewire the neural pathways so it might become more of a default action, takes energy. It is easy to keep driving in a straight line, on a well-paved road. Changing gear, turning the wheel, requires fuel. When I'm tired, stressed, not feeling well, it's far far harder to stick to my intentions. This is where the "Energy levels and Introversion" referred to in the title come in.

I discovered 2 years ago after reading Susan Cain's momentous book, 'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking' that I am introverted. I had thought, for years and years, I was some kind of weirdo, a hermit, anti-social, because of my need to be alone for substantial amounts of time. I was made to feel this way when I first decided, at the age of around 27, that I couldn't live with flatmates, needed to live alone. The flatmate I was living with at the time couldn't understand this at all, I think she actually preferred to never be alone (which I can now understand a little better - and shows the need for more talk about introversion and extroversion!) and she took it so personally she never spoke to me again.

What I didn't understand then was that being alone is not just a lifestyle choice if you're an introvert, it's a physiological necessity. I thought I would pass this on in case you think you're an antisocial weird hermit too. Well, you might not be.

If you Google "introvert" this is the first definition that comes up: "a shy, reticent person." Well, if you met me - those of you who have - you wouldn't use those words. I can perform on stage, I can talk in front of large groups of people, I can teach workshops, go to parties (well, hmm) - I can, in other words, appear to be what we call "extrovert" - but the difference is that all these things, all these interactions, drain my energy. Whereas a more extroverted person gains energy from these same interactions. And it's a scale - if you're half way along it, you're an ambivert!

To quote from Susan Cain's website Quiet Revolution

introversion and extroversion lie at the heart of human nature. One scientist refers to them as “the north and south of temperament.”  When you make life choices that are congruent with your temperament—and allow others to do the same—you unleash vast stores of energy.  Conversely, when you spend too much time battling your own nature, the opposite happens: you deplete yourself.

And this isn't the same type of energy that can be replenished by getting a good night's sleep. I have some theories about the type of energy it is, I think it's to do with adrenaline, but I can't find any studies about this. I re-read Susan Cain's book the other day, and what stuck in my mind this time were the scientific studies about highly reactive babies versus non-reactive babies. The researcher had a theory that babies who reacted to every noise, every light, stimulus, would grow up to be introverts. And this turns out to be pretty much the case. I definitely feel that when I'm out and about, I don't do a great job of filtering - that sometimes I feel the world is shouting at me. I have trouble following conversations if there are more than 3 of us, I get easily distracted.

Reacting to many many stimuli takes energy. And perhaps we then need to be alone to replenish, but not just alone, "turned inward", which is what "introvert" actually means, so that we are not reacting at all, or doing the opposite of reacting, which is using whatever means we need to unreact.

This seems, for me and for others I've talked to, to involve a great deal of thinking. I think all the time. I think my way into trouble quite often, reading far too much into something, worrying about my own behaviour etc..., but then what's rather nice is I think my way through and out of it too.

Apart from the being alone and the thinking, I like to sit in corners when I am in cafes or events, to be able to observe without necessarily being seen. I'm awful at small talk (what a relief to know that there might be an "explanation" for that!). But when I have a deep conversation with someone, one-on-one, I can feel my energy reservoirs filling up!

Now, before I discovered this, 2 years ago, I think I was always depleted to some extent or other. I would get ill quite often. 15 years ago I was diagnosed with a thyroid condition, but I never believe this was the problem and stopped taking the medication. Now I think it was because I was ignoring the warning signs and getting severely depleted. And when "introvert burnout" happens, it's not like getting tired. It's like when that battery-operated Duracell rabbit's batteries start to run out - my limbs stop being able to move properly, my head is a fog, and I know quite soon I won't be able to speak full sentences. Sometimes I have the feeling of wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I'm a car with no petrol.

What a bloody relief to find out why and how to fill myself up! And now I know what it feels like to have my full energy, it's a kind of bliss! Of course, I still overdo it (hence the cough which has lasted about 8 weeks). I keep thinking, I can go out to one more poetry reading, I can teach one more student. But nope, I can't. And I suffer. And have to cancel 4 events or students.

Interestingly, I read an article that was circulating last week on the Huffington Post entitled 18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently. And many of them sound like introvert-type behaviours: daydreaming, observing everything, taking time for solitude, people-watching... I wonder if so many of my writer friends and I are introverts because we write, or we write to fill in all those hours we are alone... or - it's not that simple!

Anyway, being an introvert is not a diagnosis, not a personality disorder, not a problem at all. It's like being fair-skinned means I can't go out in the sun for long without suncream. That's just how it is. I can't go out too often without having to be alone (sometimes with the curtains shut during the day) so I can turn inwards. Up to 50% of the population of the US may be introverts, so it's probably something like that here too.

The point of all this is that when I am at full energy levels, everything - EVERYTHING - is easier. My thoughts don't spin real-life events into stories that have little basis in reality (I'm not talking about fiction-writing here, but about the monkey mind that persuades us of cause-and-effect where there may be none, generally to our detriment). I've got the energy to go against my instincts and stop for a split second before acting, before making a decision, to see if I am being true to the way I want to be in the world. That takes energy. I fail, a lot. I spend time thinking over - as the Stoics recommended - how I've dealt with people and what I can learn about being better. (I am a fan of the Stoics, and of Buddhism, although their approaches do diverge.) But I also try not to beat myself up for doing things "wrong". Because that's not kindness to me.

So, I guess what I am trying to say is this: paradoxically, in order to change my behaviour and be more like the way I want to be in the world, I have to first recognise and nurture the way I already am, the way I work best, in order to have the energy to change.

I'd love to hear your thoughts - on any of the above!