How spiders got me writing

Spiders: the stuff of nightmares, fairy tales, fantasy or fiction? Arachnophobia or arachnophilia – what camp are you in? A recent re-read of a childhood favourite Charlotte’s Web – complete with my nine-year-old joined-up writing signature on the inside front cover – steered me towards the latter.

And what a wonderful story it is featuring Charlotte A. Cavatica, the grey spider and heroine of the piece who saves Wilbur (the pig’s) life. It’s a story of selfless friendship, loyalty, devotion, commitment and love. There’s plenty of humour and humanity too: Charlotte tell us: “Well, I am pretty. There’s no denying that,” seven is her lucky number, she’s a good writer and storyteller and prone to some wonderfully Zen reflections (none of which I noticed aged nine). She compares her web spinning prowess to the building of the Queensborough bridge and how long it took. She adds a comment on the pace of human life: “they just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. With men, it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I am a sedentary spider.”

She’s also very pragmatic – while still storybook – and unapologetic about being a bloodythirsty predator consuming: “flies, bugs, grasshoppers, choice beetles, moths, butterflies, tasty cockroaches, gnats, midges, daddy longlegs, centipedes, mosquitoes, crickets — anything that’s careless enough to get caught in my web. I have to live, don’t I”?

As we all know, her ingenuity and patience save Wilbur from ending up as crispy bacon on a dinner plate: “She knew from experience that if she waited long enough, a fly would come to her web; and she felt sure that if she thought long enough about Wilbur’s problem, an idea would come to her mind.” Her solution is to weave words into her web to persuade the farmer, Homer Zuckerman, that Wilbur is an exceptional pig who must be saved.  And it works; Wilbur becomes a celebrity attracting attention far and wide, and becomes the star at the County Fair.

“I wove my web for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

If only I had re-read Charlotte’s Web before my first trip to Australia in 1995…

A kayak instructor I met on the backpacker trail lent me his house in rural Gippsland in Victoria. Here was my big chance to have a solo adventure away from my family and friends in the UK. I’d imagined a rose-covered cottage perched on a hill with views over a valley, where I would be able to tap into my inner poet, be at one with nature and meditate into the middle distance.  In reality, it was a wooden shack in Nowheresville and any view was obscured by the mountain drizzle.

Even worse, on my first (and, as it turned out, only night) I noticed a huge black shape profiled against the grubby white duvet covering the mattress on the floor.  It was a spider and I was terrified. Back then, I thought all Australian spiders delivered killer bites. Clearly, I had read too much Bill Bryson. To quote from his book Down Under: “Australia has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip.”

It was in fact a huntsman spider. Although they are relatively harmless, they are hairy, have eight-eyes, can span two hundred and fifty to three hundred millimetres and are dead ringers for tarantulas. I tried chatting to it: “Would you please just toddle off and leave me alone,” but it stayed put, defiant and rubbery, until I raised my boot, praying it would dart off, Alice-like, through a hole in the skirting board. Alas, my prayers went unanswered and so I ended up beating the life out of the poor defenceless thing.

The deathly deed done, I looked around the room and noticed there were webs  everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Plugging the skirting board hole with cotton wool, I swept the sills and then got under the well-worn coverless quilt. I hardly slept, flinching against the spider-like loose threads every time I turned over. As soon as daylight came, I was up and into the shower where – and I exaggerate not – a spider dangled from a bare light bulb. The place had now taken on Hitchcockian associations.

I dressed, packed and fled down to the shop at the bottom of the hill. Distraught to hear that the next bus wasn’t for two days –  a timeframe seemingly exaggerated by the shopkeeper’s slow Australian drawl – I accepted a lift to Warragul station from a kindly farmer who took me the scenic route via the Lakes.  So much for my journey of self-discovery.

Too proud to return to the bosom of my family – my brother was living here and my parents visiting from the UK– I called friends of friends from a pay phone at the train station. “It’s Helen’s friend, Charlotte,” I said in a high-pitched squeak, explaining my flight from the spider shack.  Even though she had never met me, the lovely Connie (now in her late 80s) asked whether I would like to go and stay with them in Kyneton. And that was the start of a beautiful friendship with Connie and Norman and their family.

My four days in Kyneton turned out to be food for mind, body and soul – everything Gippsland wasn’t. There was porridge for breakfast, morning tea on the veranda, roast dinners in the evening and trips to Hanging Rock and Castlemaine. What’s more, under Connie’s excellent tutelage, I wrote my first short story (based on an experience in Parsley Bay in Sydney) on her typewriter. I still have the original today and am proud of it. Thank you spider, you helped to kickstart my creative writing!

Chocolate, choc-a-bloc living and computerised cleaning

On Saturday afternoon I found myself grating chocolate – a jaw-clenchingly fiddly activity – for a chocolate pâté I was making. Yes, you read that correctly; chocolate pâté. It was an everything-free recipe (as in no gluten, refined sugar or dairy) I had cut out of a magazine over a year ago. Made in a loaf tin from a mixture of organic cacao powder, walnuts (soaked overnight to remove enzyme inhibitors – so the recipe said), maple syrup, tahini, grated chocolate and pure vanilla extract, it was actually very good – especially when garnished with berries – if very rich.

But I don’t recommend grating chocolate as a relaxing activity; it flies everywhere a bit like polystyrene beans and I ended up breaking a much-loved Pyrex dish in my attempts to sweep up the chocolate confetti littering the kitchen bench. I was rushing – hence the jaw clenching bit – as I’d done my beach cardio routine (see my last blog post) in the morning, washed the floors, cleaned Bertie’s ears, done a few loads of laundry and washed up all the pots and pans left over from making coq-au-vin the night before for a meals-on-wheels catch-up with a girlfriend, and now I had a 3.30pm appointment to get to. After that I just had time to bolt round the block with the dog child before heading across town – complete with grid-locked Saturday night traffic (argh!!!) – to meet friends at the cinema.

I studied Far From the Madding Crowd for my O’ levels at school (that dates me…) and know and love the book and the 1967 film with Julie Christie and Alan Bates. The 2015 adaptation is good; Carey Mulligan is excellent as Bathsheba Everdene and who can fail to be swept away by the rolling Dorset countryside? I’m not sure Matthias Schoenaerts’ Gabriel Oak has quite the same humble earthiness as Alan Bates’ character, but it was a fine film nevertheless and I got to SIT DOWN! Over drinks with my friends after the film, they talked variously of a holiday in Bali, sleeping in and siestas. Green with envy, by 10pm I was beginning to flag, my batteries seriously flat.

The next day I was up and out with Bertie and then across town again for a sumptuous birthday feast prepared in honour of a friend’s birthday. We all took a dish – from Greek rabbit casserole to chicken and fennel meatballs to the most divine lemon cheesecake and my chocolate pâté. A marvellous time was had by all but it was 6pm by the time I got home. Sated but happy, I was also exhausted and in bed by 9.30pm, which was bliss after three nights out and about.

So, come Monday morning, by which time I was once again bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was particularly interested to read a blog post by motivational coach and author Andrew Jobling and to watch a video by Brendon Burchard of the High Peformance Academy. Both had content that really interested me, and after a choc-a-bloc weekend, the timing seemed perfect. Jobling’s blog was all about ‘do or die’ non-negotiable goals – I’m thinking writing a book – and how to stick to them, whatever life throws at you. Birthday feasts apart, committing to writing means keeping a day or afternoon free a week even if it means saying ‘No’ to a lunch or seeing a friend. It’s called commitment – and a healthy measure of self-belief comes in handy too.

But how do we stick to our goals when so many other things compete for our time and attention? Because everyone is busy. Burchard talks about getting into the right mindset and having focus and clarity. He asks if we can envision – really see, feel and sense – ourselves achieving the goal, as in becoming our future selves. Have any other wannabe authors pictured themselves holding a finished book at the launch party? I like his tip about programming in some quick wins to keep the motivation going and about gathering supportive people and mentors around you. And my favourite – given my choc-a-bloc tendency – is Bandwith Belief. This is where you ask yourself if the goal or activity is something that you have enough time or focus to do well.

Burchard – and he has a very compelling style – claims that we can all get 30 minutes to an hour back each day. Really?! But he’s not one of those lifestyle gurus who tell you to get up half an hour earlier each day. On the contrary, he advocates getting up to 50 minutes more sleep. But he does recommend avoiding distractions such as trashy TV or clicking through to banal or non-essential links on social media. The trouble is that I am not doing any of those things anyway – some weeks I don’t even turn the TV on and I go for days without looking at Facebook. But there is something I could do less of – and that’s housework.

And I’m not the only one harassed by housework. My recent Airbnb guest, GP, asked if I did all the cleaning myself, remarking that there was quite a lot of floor to clean (ah, sympathy, how nice!). She lives in a small apartment in Singapore but has one of those robot cleaners. As long as you take up any floor rugs (the robot might try and eat them), she says they are pretty effective. The conversation at the birthday feast also turned to computerised cleaners. In fact my friend Di is thinking of putting her birthday money towards one of these automated floor mops. And why not if it gives you more time to focus on more important things?

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Right now, either human cleaners or robots seem an attractive solution to broadening my Bandwidth! But I’m still intrigued to watch Burchard’s video on how to increase productivity by 30%. He says you can do that by working less and reducing stress. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Stay tuned for my next post. Meanwhile I could do with a robot at work to write grant and funding applications…

Getting back to business

It’s been a long time between blogs! I started a new job a month ago which, although part-time, has taken up a lot of my energy and headspace. Since 2007, I’ve worked mainly freelance from home, so adjusting to the environment of an office – the politics, the gossip, the rules, procedures, policies and timesheets, KPIs and performance appraisals, crazy workload and deadlines, meetings and the need for frequent injections of caffeine and sugar – felt a bit like going back to school. I make sandwiches and pack my satchel the night before and make sure I have done my homework. Because part-time jobs always spill over into non-work time. Especially in the not-for-profit sector.

Having said all that it’s an interesting role in the fundraising department of one of Melbourne’s best-loved charities, one that has been looking after the homeless and disadvantaged for over 30 years. As I’m covering for someone on maternity leave, I’m only there for six months so I was in at the deep end from day one. It was super intense to begin with as I gave myself a crash course in everything from their systems, databases, computer idiosyncrasies (don’t get me started…) and programs to the people I would need to get on-side.

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Now I’ve learnt Google Mail (not nearly as efficient as Outlook), a new database and figured out how the online timesheets work, not to mention the phones, things are beginning to calm down and I am no longer working like a headless chicken. In fact, I worked so fast and furiously to start with that I wrote down my bank details incorrectly, which meant that my first pay cheque bounced. Perhaps it was a Freudian slip and I’ve got stuck in lack mode. Poor me…

But no! Something seems to have shifted in the last few days. I feel a need to discard things, habits and behaviours that are no longer serving me and to challenge some of the limiting beliefs standing in my way. It’s the old head versus heart argument. It’s great to be in a good job, writing funding submissions but what happened to the calling of the soul aka creativity? It’s definitely time to pick up my book again – I keep getting little nudges from the universe.

A friend recently invited me to a motivational workshop entitled: “The Beginner’s Guide to Becoming an Author.” The focus was not on the writing itself but on developing the discipline of writing and of creating a clear vision of the published book, then working out what steps you need to take to achieve that goal. One of the steps is to identify any negative beliefs getting in the way. You know the ones: What will people think?; I’m not good enough; Who would want to read my story?; I don’t have enough time; I’ll never make it and so on.

As we went through the exercise of dumping unhelpful beliefs in an imaginary bin, I had an aha moment! I realised why I had abandoned my book a couple of years ago. I got as far as finishing it and submitting it to publishers and nearly made it over the line. But despite some of the very encouraging and positive feedback I received, I only listened to the rejections. It all seemed too hard and I gave up.

Soon after the motivational workshop a friend emailed me a link to a book that is about a woman coming out of her shell. She said it reminded her of me and that I should not give up on my book. Then this week I had a kinesiologist staying as an Airbnb guest. I mentioned my book – en passant – and the following day she said she had a strong feeling I should persevere with it. She also very generously gave me a treatment as she sensed that I had a few ‘blocks’ she could help to clear. How lucky am I?! Marie is hugely intuitive and picked up on all sorts of aspects of my life, past and present. That is what’s so wonderful about kinesiology – it’s not a talk therapy; instead it works on muscle testing and feedback from the body. AND the body never lies.

So this week I’m going to dive back in to my book –as in getting back to the REAL business – and follow the advice of my friend in Felicity. Throw caution to the wind, write as if no one is looking or listening and see what comes out. Don’t think about the reader, just write. As if to underline that message I saw a great Natalie Goldberg quote this week: “Play around. Dive into absurdity and write. Take chances. You will succeed if you are fearless of failure.”

I’ve had a win!

I am very excited to share that my short story ‘A Brief Encounter’- adapted from my book Slowing in the Fast Lane: From Adventure to Zen and Everything in Between has been published on the Radio National website as part of their ‘Pocketdocs’ competition. The guidelines were that it had to be a story on the theme “I met a stranger” and be less than 500 words. The story I sent in was adapted from my D is for Dogs chapter, and, like all the stories in my humorous, memoir-style collection, is true and unembellished in any way.

You can read it here:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/projects/pocketdocs-2014/5768322

Like many writers I spend hours tapping away into the silence, into the void, racked with self-doubt so successes like this really encourage me to keep going and to honour my voice and way of writing. The RN editor commented on my strong voice.

What’s more, a good fried of mine, Felicity, herself a published author (mentioned in an earlier post on bee-keeping), recently read my book from beginning to end and really loved it. Armed with these two pieces of positive feedback, I am inspired to have another go at getting it published or to self-publish. Watch this space!

Singing Away the Blues

A couple of weeks ago a literary agent based in the States expressed interest in my book, Slowing Down in the Fast Lane: from Adventure to Zen and Everything in Between, and asked me to send the full manuscript. She seemed to love the concept and I had high hopes that she might want to represent me. On Monday morning, however, my hopes were dashed. Ouch! She emailed to let me know that she didn’t feel that the A-Z format worked “for the necessary emotional journey a reader must take with the author in a work of memoir.” A publisher in Queensland who loved my writing and humour said pretty much the same thing. It wasn’t so much the rejection that left me a bit flat but the thought, that after so much writing, re-writing, perfecting and polishing, I might have to embark on a total re-write.

But, of course, attempting to write a book and get it published is rarely a straightforward process. And it requires a great deal of patience and perseverance. On Monday I was lacking in both and ended up humming that Boomtown Rats song I don’t like Mondays ! That’s the thing about being self-employed, there’s no one to whinge to; you have to jolly yourself along. I’m mostly very good at motivating myself but nothing seemed to be flowing at the start of the week. It didn’t help that work was a bit thin on the ground in typical feast and famine freelance fashion.

Thankfully, however, Monday night is choir night. I decided to leave my hangdog day (and my beloved puppy dog) at home and throw myself into the singing. Our usual repertoire ranges from African harmonies, negro spiritual and chain gang songs to Russian ballads, Celtic folk tunes and sea shanties with a bit of contemporary stuff thrown in. But before we start signing, we loosen up with a workout for mind, body, voice and spirit which involves a series of meditative, breathing and vocal exercises followed by a bit of stretching and dancing around. How good it was this week to do the tongue sticking out routine – blahhhhhh, bluuuhhhh– and let go of the day’s frustration.

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At the end of the evening our Choir Director Richard came up to me and – quite unprompted – said: “Hello Charlotte! Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Was he a mind reader? Did he know that I had spent the day battling book and impending big birthday blues? As in, I am halfway through my life – if not more – and, well, you know, dum de dum. What do I have to show for it? So ran my inner judge and critic on Monday. “Think about your triumphs and don’t listen to the negative chatter that comes up at three in the morning,” suggested Richard. I was about to come up with a great long list of all the non-triumphs (it’s so easy to default to that) but then realised that taking a huge leap of faith and moving to Australia nearly ten years ago has to be my biggest triumph to date.

I returned home with a deep sense of gratitude that I belong to such a wonderful choir full of like-minded, supportive and creative souls – it’s no coincidence we’re called Soul Song. And then I remembered two other huge triumphs. I took part in a solo singing workshop earlier this year and sang a Buena Vista Social Club song in Spanish to the rest of the group (amazing in itself as not so long ago I’d have almost preferred to strip naked than sing a solo), and then at our recent choir retreat, I learnt how to use a microphone and experimented with the same song – giving it my all. It really is never too late to change your life and find your voice.

Feeling the fear and doing it anyway...

Feeling the fear and doing it anyway…

As for the book, I’m going to see if I get any other bites before I change the format. I didn’t really set out to write a memoir, more a humorous anthology of life adventures… and misadventures. Perhaps I’ve been marketing it in the wrong way. I might take a straw poll and get some feedback in a future blog. Who knows, perhaps by the next zero birthday, I will be a published author.

I wannabe published...

I wannabe published…