From One Alien to Another (or maybe it’s the same one)

by Matt Harper-Hardcastle

So, as much as can be expected, I let lockdown into my life. I acknowledged the adjustments it would make and responded accordingly; regular walks, yoga, Zoom, moderating media consumption etc. What I hadn’t expected was that hiding underneath the cloak of lockdown, was an all too familiar alien that had crept its way back into my home.

Feelings from years ago, when I was somersaulting through the storm of my mam’s cancer battle have presented themselves once more: succumbing to a feeling of helplessness, the distance between myself and loved ones becoming magnified, an anxiety towards cause and effect, of what the future might look like and of who I and everyone else will be after all of this. As with many, I expect, I have also been experiencing extremely vivid dreams, that awaken me with a dry mouth and a shortness of breath. Some of these are awful replays of dreams that have already been, whilst some are manifestations of current fears pushing through the membrane of my subconscious. Everything from rehearing the news of my mam’s terminal diagnosis, seeing the fear in her face and having to say goodbye, to myself and my husband becoming sick, becoming helpless. I awake with a sensation I once had to struggle to make friends with: an invisible pressure on my rib cage and an unfathomable weight in my heart. However, this time, with this alien, that feeling passes much quicker and I think that is because the tools I had no choice but to make and the strategies I had no other option but to practice from when the first alien visited my mam, have stuck with me: in my head, in my heart, in my muscles and even my bones. 

In fact all the (limited) opportunities that this current lockdown has thrown us draw parallels between strategies I used then and am using now.

  • A walk – when I finally went for counselling to process my mam’s death, one of the main revelations for me was that I was not carving out any space for me just to be with the thoughts that needed no articulation to anyone other than myself. On our government permitted daily exercise slot, I like to go for a walk with my dog and take in the blueness of the sky whilst my thoughts can just freefall in my head. I am currently on day 18 of Yoga; I am not sure how good I’m getting at the actual discipline, but what it is giving me is a time to walk away from everything else, be with my body and not have to focus on anything other than my breath.
  • A talk – with my mam’s alien I very quickly moved into a phase of anticipatory grief and the only way I could navigate my way through that bizarre liminal existence, was by talking to others: by saying aloud what was trapped in my brain and by hearing the many different viewpoints of those that had been in similar places. More than this, I told stories and made plans with others. This was a way of reminiscing about the past, confronting what was currently happening and also keeping in mind that there would be something after. By talking to others I kept connected to something much greater than any of us; hope.
  • A distraction – the book I published with The Writing Tree started as a blog to offload my thoughts, keep my mind busy and give me something to do, so the alien couldn’t creep into any unoccupied space in my head. I’m currently really enjoying watching theatre productions online, finishing scripts I’ve been putting off, making myself nice lunches I never usually have time for. Whatever it is, finding that enjoyable activity that you can turn to when you need to turn away from the alien is always useful. 
  • A stillness – this lockdown is meaning that most of us are a lot stiller, with a lot less places to go. Whilst this can (and is) having a negative impact on mental wellbeing it can also be a good reminder for me of how to process these sometime overwhelming emotions. A good friend of mine once told me to never run away from an emotion, but instead to grant it entry, be with it for a while and to feel it fully until I was ready to move on with it. Each emotion has something to teach us, either in that moment or as we emerge. I’m remembering not to fear being still with these emotions.
  • A treat – this came from my mam and remains with me. My Mam believed that you always needed something that was just for you that you could look forward to. A way of telling yourself ‘you deserve this’. For me that has been small things like ordering weekend deliveries from a local bakery, having lavish baths, and wearing the coziest loungewear I could find. Oh and learning to make a superb martini!

I hope that those who read this, as I hope those who read my book, find some comfort, advice or words that echo their own experiences. As I learned with my first alien invasion; we have never done this before and so we are responding the best we can with the ways of being we have to hand, until things change or we learn something new. So in whatever way you can be, continue to be gentle on yourself and be kind to others. Everything else is a bonus.

The Day the Alien Came: Living with Loss by Matt Harper-Hardcastle, published by the Writing Tree in 2019, is available from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback.

Writing Groups: Giving Feedback

by Ekaterina Fawl

I’ve already talked about the joys and challenges of receiving feedback graciously (even if it’s not the glowing praise you expected!) and using it to improve your piece (even if the comments aren’t as helpful as you might have hoped). Now it’s time to turn the tables… Let’s delve into the art of giving feedback! How can we do that without crushing our fellow writers’ spirits, while giving them our honest opinion? How do we organise our thoughts? How do we provide the most useful and thoughtful feedback the writer can get?

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The Art of Letter Writing

by Bon Nightingale

[This week’s blog post is by guest blogger Bon Nightingale who, at 96, still corresponds regularly with friends and family and members of her church. She writes for us about the (nearly) lost art of letter-writing, and the part it’s played in her life.]

I remember when I was seven, my father gave me a pencil box. Oak, with a slide-top. It had compartments inside for pencils and rubber. It smelled of wood, like my dad’s workshop.

I started writing letters to my Grandma – my father’s mother. I went to her for music lessons, and we’d write little notes to each other. At school I enjoyed dictation, the pleasure of forming letters and sentences. I remember writing ‘A Day in the Life of a Cat’ for a composition exercise, and got in trouble because my imagination ran away with me. My cat lived a day as a human. He went on an adventure on a boat. My work was marked with the dreaded ‘see me’ from the teacher, who told me off for using too much imagination. After that I stuck to more factual writing. Continue reading

Writing Groups: Taking Feedback

by Ekaterina Fawl

Being in a writing group is tons of fun. Socialising with like-minded people, getting to read their first drafts and workshop their stories as they take shape, getting a glimpse of others’ creative processes – all amazing experiences. But sooner or later comes the time do that what you have ostensibly joined the group for: receive feedback on your own writing.

You might dread it, or can’t wait to hear what the others think, or some healthy combination thereof. But the fact is, taking feedback and effectively using it to improve the story and your writing as a whole is a skill in itself. If you’re new to it, there’s quite a lot to learn there.

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