Thursday, March 01, 2007

Tonight I can write with apologies to Neruda

I wrote this poem I thought you might like it

today I can write the happiest lines
write for example
the moon arose and I dined with friends
away, far from my comfort zone

what does it matter that it was not perfect
that I did not finish desert

today I can write the happiest lines
write for example
I stayed out with friends
when I wanted to run
I persevered beyond blind panic
beyond the coursing through my veins to flee
till my heart beat again
with the thrumming of the stars

what does it matter that I am still peckish
the grumbling in my tum will
disappear with morning breakfast

I do not still need panic
that's certain
but I maybe I do
Or it would not still be with me

what is it in me that thinks I don't deserve happiness?
that I am not worthy?
that I have not tried hard enough?
fearing some insatiable beast
not content
until I am swallowed whole

when I have searched the world's oceans
and read the library dry

Today I can write the happiest lines
it will be over

throughout nights like this one
I have learned time and again
I do survive
and thrive
and tomorrow
a new day
a page turned over
I can start afresh

The wind will call to touch my hearing
but this time
I will be

I know what it whispers
it says
do not be afraid
you are stronger than its
toilet runs
you have survived

you don't need to keep proving that
now you can rest

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Endings for your novel

Endings start from page 1 in your book. Yep, you read right, I said 'page 1'. An ending is like a river pouring its heart into the sea.

A book should start like a snowflake on the top of the mountain. At first it is just one melting drop of water; a fine detail, which will usually appear in the first words, sentence or paragraph of your novel. It sets the mystery of the novel, the premise. It is the key. From there readers need to keep reading, they ask themselves repeatedly while they are reading, What details will reveal the ending? What will the final picture look like? Each detail you put in your book, each character, each setting, needs to be a piece of the puzzle, contributing to the ending. If it doesn't contribute to the complete picture it is best left out. Like drops of water if enough details join, soon you will have a stream. With more details it turns into a river, and its direction is clear, sometimes it may wind, and ebb, but with every added detail it flows strongly towards the sea (the end of your novel or story).

And ending should be inevitable. This does not mean it should be boring. But every detail in the novel needs to make its inexorable way towards the end. If all you're left with at the end of your book is a stagnant puddle, then you know you've been unsuccessful.

An ending should leave the reader with an Aha! I knew it. Niggling at the back of their mind should have been some idea of what might happen, but if you have been clever, they will not guess. That is the key, enough clues to keep them going, but not too many to give it away. Also, keep in mind that if you insert details that do not contribute to your ending then your readers will get bored and shut the book. Each detail needs a reason, each one must contribute to the river, and slowly make its way towards the ocean. By the end you should have a gushing torrent, there will be only one clear ending; that which is made up of all the clues you have left along the way.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Hello mental health, it’s me speaking

I keep forgetting where I am and how I got here, so I’ve decided to type out my diary. The last few weeks have been very low, which is seemingly counter-intuitive as I’ve been coping very well with lots of changes without a panic attack in sight. I hate writing that. Makes me feel like I am willing bad luck; like there’s some bad witch out there watching for the slightest hint of a smile on my face, just so she can point that spindly finger and vanish all my dreams away. That’s a crazy notion I know, but something I need to deal with. That’s the fear talking, saying Don’t shine the light on me, don’t. Because you know what will happen when you shine the light. The fear tells you that your recovery is impermanent, that if you blast that torch in its direction your tentative little life will fall apart. But what really happens is that shining the light, speaking your fear, extinguishes the darkness.

The fear is fearful of its demise. After-all, it has been your companion for so long. It whispers, What a lonely life it will be once I’m gone. Maybe that’s why I feel sad: it’s the end of an era. That sounds so strange, doesn’t it? Like the Beatles breaking up or the death of Monet. Like suddenly you’re not going to see another vision of those water lilies again; whether they’re purple or that lovely orange-brown they descended into as Monet became blinded by cataracts. To feel upset for a time in your life that has been hellish doesn’t (on the surface) make sense. What people don’t realise is that when you peek through the bars of the dungeon of your own nightmares you see a key that is so luminous, your quest can become like that for the Holy Grail. If you have spent your life searching for a cure, what do you get when you finally clasp the cup in your hands? Once you’ve drunk from it what then?

Don’t worry about that now; there’s a road you need to tread between here and salvation. Now off you go and have a banana. The banana is gone, so I’m having a pear. That’s one thing you have to keep in mind with this program; if you have focussed your mind on a goal and you set about achieving it, and what you’re doing isn’t working, then you need to change tack. As in sailing, if there’s no wind you may have to power up the motor. If you’re in a little Taser and you have no motor you may just have to wait for someone to tow you back to shore. Either way if there’s no wind you need to reassess. So it is with mental health treatment. Last year I was driving and driving, trying to get to a place so I could be at my brother’s wedding. The more kilometres I crunched the more tense I got. I was not paying attention to the internal warning signs screaming at me You are going off course. When I faltered I fell very hard. The reflection of how hard I fell had a direct correlation with how hard I was pushing myself. Deep down I was saying I must not panic. I must not panic. What I should have been doing was noting the rising panic and dealing with that and those emotions, instead of doing purely scientific, ‘getting there’ type activities. I confused my journey to freedom with physical distance. But the distance to wellness is not measured in kilometres.

Setbacks are inevitable, just like the beta testing of a computer program, before you release it on the world. When I was working on a Y2K team I learned that simple things (like putting ‘20’ into dates) can be essential; so too panic setbacks remind us of the little details. The need to stop and fill your lungs. The need to say howdie to your best friend. The need to look at what’s important, quit a horrible job or walk the dog.

Most people who experience panic have perfectionist personalities: they expect to climb the Olympus of their fears every day. They push and push until their muscles weaken, their clamps come loose, and their fingers are black from frostbite. Our society has this fascination with material things, like whether we own a house, or have children, or own the latest flat screen plasma TV. But people are far more complex than this, and often the spirit of a person is harder to see and gauge. Sometimes we lose focus on the goal and we get caught up in what other people say. We unconsciously accept the propaganda, Yes, I must have a house to be happy. I must own this boat and all these little trinkets. It’s usually at this time that our blood pressure begins to rise and those familiar panicky feelings take hold.

Fear might be just another way of telling you to stop working so hard, stop abusing your body, stop denying your feelings, stop, stop, stop. So you do.

And life is never the same again.

In my case life truly did stop. This came in the form of a monumental quaking that opened a great fissure underneath me; I looked down, and (at first) I could only see a gaping drop of unfathomable black depth. I could not begin to imagine life outside my swaying corridor. My job, an hour’s drive away may as well have been Mount Fuji, and I a snail. I was blind to it at the time, but this illness was to become truly a blessing. Prior to the panic my job had become a production line, one after another manuscripts mounted, till I had to sequester another desk. Inside my heart was screaming, When do I get to the bottom of the stack? But I never heard its call. Never even considered leaving. This was the dream of publishing I had nurtured for so long. I had ignored my heart for so long that now my body conspired to ignore me. Against all my wishes a shaking took over, a sick stomach, blurry eyed weakness that (at first) I simply could not fight. And when I did go into battle to leave the house after several weeks I wondered: Why would I want to continue working so hard, abusing my body, denying my feelings? Take this opportunity to grow. To learn to strive for all those things I’ve never had time to strive for. Take a hard, hard look. This is the message. The chance to start over and re-build is one not given to everyone.

If we start looking upon this as a blessing rather than a witch’s evil concoction, life takes on new meaning. Beauty is no longer something you see with your eyes; it is in everything. In the early days of my illness my only wish was to wash my car. Wistfully I watched the city dust descend on my white car and dreamed of the day I could get there with a polishing cloth. If I could just get downstairs, I thought. So when the day came and I finally made it into the carpark, bucket in hand, warm water washing the dust away, it was the best day. Better than publishing a thousand page book, better than chocolate.

Panic is almost like being paralysed from the inside. Only in some ways worse than being wheelchair bound, because people don’t recognise it as an illness. You often get told, Just get over it. Like if you try hard enough you can climb the mountain, without ropes, the proper shoes or stamina. People think, If you want it enough you can conjure that calm. But internal peace is a skill, especially when your body conspires against you in such a dramatic fashion. Suddenly, the very things you take for granted, being able to operate a car, breathing without fear of blacking out, walking past your front doorstep into a benign world, have simply vanished, or they are so different to what you are used to, you question everything. If I go there can I escape quickly? Does this road force me to drive through the city? Where are the exits in case I need to leave? Sometimes the bodily reverberations are so strong, all you want to do is stop every source of feedback touching your body. You close all the windows and the doors, stop taking food in, sit in a corner of a room and fall to pieces, hoping that if you’re not exposed to the world whatever is causing the shaking will stop. This is agoraphobia. Looking around with panicky eyes is akin to seeing the world with upside down glasses. All your senses are suddenly wrong. As you learn to recover you discover that you must re-interpret the world. When your brain tells you to run, you need to stay. When you want to turn left, because that takes you closer to home you flick your blinker to right. When every sense is experiencing overload and you want to stay holed up in the darkness, you must open the door and walk into the sunshine. For every time you give in to the panic is two times you must say no to it. So in the end you learn to do the opposite of your panicky intuition. Many won’t appreciate the time it takes to learn that sense of confidence again, but some do, usually those who have also gone through it and come out shining on the other side. A friend of mine who has also experienced panic says to me ‘Take all the time you need.’ Patience and understanding, I find, can be the greatest gifts a person can give you. This acts as a role model for the patience you give to yourself.

Your time is so different to everyone else’s.

Mental health, what is it? Increasingly I find it is about being able to turn to the one person in your life who will always be by your side when governments, friendships and work falls apart: that person is you. Your own best friend, confidant, diary, self.

I used to dream that people were walking ahead of me, so far and so fast that their legs blurred like a comic strip Road Runner. I worried that soon I would be so far out of step with them that I would be left alone. Now I’m happy to walk and hum and occasionally stop and photograph the flowers. My closest friends understand that I’m just taking in the scenery. Sometimes they fall behind to greet me, which is so nice. But if they don’t, or if I’m having a quiet moment, I am still never alone.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Royal Society of Agoraphobes

There’s a woman who won’t make it into a book of feisty, strong, shocking amazing women, unless I write her in. Her name is Deb and she’s Queen in our Royal Society of Agoraphobes. You won’t see her on the diving board at the Olympics or scaling tall buildings in a single bound. Chances are you won’t see her at all. I know I haven’t. Though we have been friends these past few months we’ve never met, and we may never meet.

The reason is that we are in separate cities. She in rural Port Augusta, South Australia. Me in the busy razzle dazzle of Sydney town. Why not fly you ask? Meet up in the centre? Because we are both members of the Royal Society of Agoraphobes. She is the Queen, I the humble Princess. Membership to this club is very exclusive, among the list of prerequisites are an ability to run at the sight of a hairdresser, bus, train or any seat in which you will be stuck unable to flee, the ability to stay for long periods in your house without seeking the sanity of the outside world and the ability to be misunderstood by most other non-royal subjects as being a coward, loser, someone who does not try enough or someone who simply does not care.

Those outside the exclusive circle of the Society cannot appreciate the efforts to which the Queen goes to live a normal everyday life. They cannot appreciate the battles with the nerves, the anticipatory anxiety that comes with setting foot beyond the threshold, the sheer joy of breathing a few easy moments in an environment outside home, on those rare occasions when it comes, the easing of the muscles.

This Queen may not make it into a book. Where pious women will save souls and rich women will collect shoes. She will not glide onto the covers of magazines with an anorexic model butt or a celebrity helicopter flight over all her chateaux.

She will simply get up in the morning, if she has the energy she will get dressed. If she’s not shaking too hard she’ll eat some breakfast and have a shower. If she can possibly draw the courage she will step outside her house. And if she is the bravest woman who ever lived she will step out into the open air and breathe an easy breath.

Most will do this without thought. Every day, one long day after another, they trudge their grey lives. But we blue bloods will never take this simple outside world for granted. We will always smell the breeze, and take a moment to touch the leaves of the eucalypt.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006



Spring, a time to take a breath, to smell the honeysuckle crowding the branches, to shake off Winter woolies, to feel air on skin, to family get togethers, to food, fish and chips by the beach, wedding bells, the elation of diving into warm water and stepping out to cool air, shared joys, baby leaves sprouting, a new vocation, a camera to capture kindred, animals, health, a clear approach, faith, a sense of calm, a discovery, new passions, forward to fresh territory, a sense of accomplishment, working with my ever-strengthening body, an acceptance of others, their faults, their strengths, their humanity, an adventure, a self-confidence that shines, outweighing other's opinions, a new faith that all is in God's hands and unfolding as it should, a rediscovery of the wonder of play.

A realisation that there will always be another day, but there is no moment like this one.


Every moment

Every new moment a flower opens its petals to the sky. New days melt ice from mountain tops, turning to trickling streams, winding down river valleys. New weeks see gems uncovered under oceans where light cannot see; tiny microbes breathe not sun, not air, the darkness, but they shine like starlight, a million brilliant beacons under the waves. Every new month the moon turns its face away, then back towards us and winks hello again. Every new year a page of life's book is turned. Every new decade we say hello to fashion, goodbye to fashion folly. The wrinkles come to visit and set up camp, marking the days on our faces like road maps to the past.

Saturday, April 29, 2006


Sometimes I feel like I am dancing through life. My steps are practised so that there is no more thought to them and I glide through the air like a ballerina on Citalopram, kind of elegant but a little more bulky. And then I think something like “Wow, I’m dancing, I really am dancing, how wonderful.” Then I trip and fall flat on my face, my dress goes everywhere, my pants show and it becomes obvious I haven’t shaved my legs. How awful. Sometimes human beings are like that, they get all happy and forget that they are pursing happiness and for one second they experience bliss. Then they trip up and spend the rest of the time lamenting that second where they lost their peace of mind (I just wrote an interesting typo there, instead of ‘peace’ wrote ‘piece’. Of course that would be a bit messy leaving pieces of your mind here and there, not to mention a health and safety catastrophe.)

People fall flat on their faces every day. It’s how we react to such setbacks that makes a difference. Some people get up smooth their dresses and go on to dance another set. Others get all flustered, upset, maybe they cry, draw some attention to themselves. Others just mope off into a corner and hide, shrinking away from the limelight, hoping the more they minimise themselves the less attention they will attract, the less likely they will be to fall on their face again. But we all know, in the cold light of day, that hiding in a corner does not help. Sure you can sit out a few sets, that’s no a problem, you must attend to injuries including injured egos. But when you do go out again accept this: the minute you step out into the parquet you’re just as likely to slip and do a most wonderful duck dive, heels screeching out in opposite directions, so why not just have a laugh?

Dr Claire Weekes says this of setbacks:
"Even months after a patient thinks she is cured, she may unexpectedly flash panic in a moment of stress. This can so shock her that she may think that she has had a setback. The agoraphobe should be warned about the traps memory can set, and be taught to recognize and not be fooled by them. The patient should also be taught that overcoming setbacks is an invaluable part of recovery, and that with enough experience in negotiating them, she will learn the way out so well that she no longer fears the way in."

Don’t you want, don’t you yearn to get out on the dance floor? Doesn’t your toe tap to the disco beat? Doesn’t the new mambo inferno dance move make you want to shake that ass? I know it does. I know the love of life is stronger in you than anyone ever knows. I know you have this in you. And how do I know, because you’re still reading, despite all my crap, all my silly analogies, you want to know about how someone with panic attacks can still have such a spirit. You want to know because you have this spirit too, and you want to find it, to reach down inside yourself and set that spirit free. Am I right? I can see the tears welling in the back of your eyes. I can see I’m right. And you want it as bad as I do. So let’s take this journey together, and proudly don the new name tags I have made for us “pussies”. We know the truth, we are more courageous than many firefighters combined. So let’s take this journey together, and by the end decide what our new names will be.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Developing characters in your novel

In order to develop characters in your novel you need to make a list of their characteristics. Here are some questions to get you started.

1. What are the character's physical characteristics? Illustrate this with a story.
2. What is the person's background. Racial. School experiences. Working life. Illustrate this with a story.
3. What are the character's hobbies? Illustrate this with a story.
4. What are the character's pet hates? Illustrate this with a story.
5. What skills does the person have? Illustrate this with a story.
6. How does the person communicate with other people? Shy? Extroverted? Has a lisp? An accent? Give some examples of turns of speech. Unique syntax.
7. How would you describe that person's spirit? Illustrate this with a story.
8. How does the character change during the course of the novel?
9. List the events of the novel and how they affect the main characters.
10. Provide each main character with some memories from childhood to help give that person greater dimension.
11. Provide memories of the main family, something about their lives together perhaps everyday outings, a special holiday, which tells you about the family dynamic.
12. Give each minor character a gem, some sort of gift that they give to the main character to help them get to where they need to be by the end of the novel.