Post-book blues? On losing the will to write…

don_t-be-a-slave-to-writer_s-blockWriter’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.” — Philip Pullman

That is us told then…those of us who think ourselves writers.  I found another contemporary writer willing to pass on their advice, Barbara Kingsolver, a woman whose work I admire as a rule:

It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.

Oh dear – she isn’t willing to collude with me either. Help……

At the risk of worrying my publishers, I can’t write at the moment. Well, to be more accurate I can’t write books at the moment. Clearly I am writing this blog post, and I have written another post for wonderful The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog on new ways of interpreting John Keats’s poetry. But nothing else seems to make sense as it leaves my brain and reaches the screen. Even my love of writing with a pencil in my favourite notebook seems to produce nothing of any meaning. It is a tough time, and worrying about it seems to make it worse.

Shell Shocked Britain, a book that took two years of research and writing, was published by Pen & Sword Books in October. Since then I have done lots of talks and have been marketing it madly on blogs, in magazines and via twitter and Facebook. It has gone well, but I feel as if it has been sucking inspiration and motivation out of me. I am not sure if other writers feel this way, although I suspect it is more than likely, but for me I know this feeling is a route into a more general depression. Scary.

I was of course anxious about the success of Shell Shocked Britain- all writers want to be read. It is a book about mental health  – looking at the shell shocked men and families who lived through the Great War 100 years ago and examining how the trauma still resonates with us today. It has sold well (I was well aware it was a niche subject, albeit an important one) so why are my anxiety levels so high that it is hard to work? Why am I railing at myself for my seeming inability to engage with the world in a healthy way?

Telling myself to ‘just write’ is not really working, unless a post like this is in some way building up to a wonderful bill-paying opportunity. I write because I enjoy it; I also write because there are bills to be paid and I have found sharing my thoughts and knowledge in articles, on blogs and in talks offers an opportunity to make an albeit meagre monthly income. Asked recently whether I would, as it were, ‘sell out’ and write commercially rather than for love then the answer had to be ‘yes’. Just because I don’t adore it doesn’t mean others won’t, and there is always the chance that an idea that really grabs my imagination will materialise from the most unexpected of places.

X2GFS_H1T1My mood is low, my anxiety high and my inspiration flown. I have two more books to write over the next two years and must start making sense of my notes. It feels terrifying. As always, my ability to procrastinate remains stubbornly expert. Perhaps I should take Neil Gaiman’s advice:

Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.”

Certainly, thinking ‘Oh my goodness I have to write 200,000 words before the end of 2016′ is giving me palpitations and preventing me from writing even 200.

As is always the case, in life as on this blog, I turn to John Keats to put me right. In Endymion, a patchily brilliant poem he wrote before his most stunning work was penned, he says:

But this is human life: the war, the deeds,
The disappointment, the anxiety,
Imagination’s struggles, far and nigh,
All human; bearing in themselves this good,
That they are still the air, the subtle food,
To make us feel existence, and to shew
How quiet death is.
from Endymion, Book II, l.153-159.

Maybe this period of post book blues is all part of the plan then, and I am simply ‘feeling’ my existence as a newly published writer.

Whatever. I just want it to stop.

Posted in Book, Books, History, Keats, love the universe and everything, Mental health, Poetry, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Guest post: The moving memoir of a despatch rider on the Western Front

AES 1917 001Today I am lucky enough to have another fascinating guest post on No Wriggling – this time by family historian and writer David Venner, who I met after the publication of my own book, Shell Shocked Britain. Here he writes movingly of his own family experiences in the Great War, and tells us more about his great-uncle Albert Simpkin, a despatch rider and the subject of a book David will see published by Pen & Sword in the spring. 

As I write, many of the leaves on the hazel outside my window have fallen and lie scattered on the ground. In time they will decompose or get dragged below the surface by earthworms.  Other leaves remain on the tree but they have changed – from the fresh green of the spring to a faded autumnal yellow: a metaphor, perhaps, for the men who fought on the First World War battlefields. Many of them fell and lay scattered on the surface or were swallowed up, unrecognisably, by the mud. The men that survived and returned from the war were changed, some in obvious, physical ways, others with mental scars that may or not have been apparent to the observer.  A lot of them of course were damaged both physically and mentally.  Their families and the wider community were deeply and irreversibly affected too, as Suzie conveys in her thoroughly researched and well-written book, Shell Shocked Britain.

My great uncle Albert Simpkin was one of the lucky ones who survived the war. Suzie’s book has started me thinking about how his experiences might have changed him. I knew him as an old man, but as he only married into my mother’s family when aged 40, his early life and character are not easily pieced together.

AES 1914 001

Albert in 1914

He was born in 1885, the eldest child of a Salford printer and his wife. When he was 12 his mother died at the birth of a fourth child, a traumatic experience for Albert and the rest of the family. His father soon re-married and Albert apparently did not take to his step-mother – a further source of emotional stress at a sensitive age. At the 1901 census there were two young half-brothers as well as the three siblings from the first marriage. It is perhaps not surprising that, on leaving school and being apprenticed to a Salford engineering firm, Albert moved out of the family home. He lived in digs with two other young men and a landlady who, according to family stories, treated him in a much more kindly way than his stepmother did.

Albert was almost 30 when he joined up, so was not as unworldly as many of the volunteer soldiers were. His teenage traumas, work experiences and early move to independent living probably resulted in a marked degree of resilience and maturity in his approach to life. He seems to have been a natural leader, as quite early in his army training he gained a promotion to become sergeant of his section.

We can gain some further insights into his character from a very detailed diary that Albert wrote of his war service. He was a motorcycle despatch rider with the 37th Division HQ on the Western Front and so had a wide-ranging role and view of the action. He saw some horrific sights, which he records, often with a comment on his reaction:

‘Higher up the trench I came across the body of one of our men badly mutilated, one of his arms had been blown off and half of his face was missing.  The front of his tunic was shredded like wool and the ammunition in his pouches had exploded. A pretty ghastly sight but it raised no more feeling in me than one feels in a butcher’s shop.  War brings one down to the level of animals.’

He endured some atrocious conditions, spending two winters in the Ypres area and another on the Somme:

‘We are having wretched weather, raining every day … After an hour’s riding we are plastered with mud from head to foot and the only way to clean oneself is to wash down with buckets of water.’ 

‘The snow is melting rapidly and everywhere is deep in mud.  I do not know which is the greater evil, snow or mud.  Snow turns to water but mud sticks closer that a brother.’

The places in which he was billeted were often far from healthy:

‘Last night we slept in a barn … The place was alive with rats which ran over our bodies and sniffed inquisitively in our faces.  One of the fellows awoke with a yell, a rat had bitten his ear.’

‘I examined the bed I have been sleeping in and found every known species of vermin, bed bugs, lice and some I was unable to christen.  I straightaway got leave from the OC to go and get a bath after which I changed all my underclothes.’

Yet he found leave-taking a depressing time:

‘The time hung very heavily, everyone cheerful but a trifle forced. I was glad when it was time to go back to France’.

He seems to have had a well-developed sense of morality and equality. For example, he was very critical of the preferential treatment of officers:

‘Sometimes when we have money we go to Bailleul for a feed but all the best places are reserved for officers, which greatly annoyed us until we found a place of our own. Even the ‘pip squeaks’, who a year or two ago were wiping their snotty little noses on their cuffs for want of a handkerchief, may enter, while the highest NCO may not. This childish snobbery of the old army sickens me.’

Despite this critical view of the officer class, his commanding officer gave him a glowing reference on demobilisation:

‘Sgt Simpkin has discharged the duties of NCO in charge motorcycles and despatch riders

in the Company with marked success. Energetic, keen and reliable in all his work. Exceptionally good disciplinarian and leader of men.  Marked organising ability. Throughout his four years of active service he has set a splendid example of personal gallantry which has greatly influenced the personnel under his command.’

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Albert in the 1950s

Albert returned to his old job with Crossley Brothers and was chief engineer by the mid-1920s. He married and shortly afterward was sent to Argentina to set up a branch of the company in Buenos Aires.  He and his wife visited England every two or three years, staying with my family on our farm in Somerset.  In between these visits he wrote to me – long, wonderfully informative letters – with descriptions of Argentine wildlife, farming, local customs and events, and he was always interested to know about our lives in England.  He was like a substitute grandfather to me: both of my grandfathers had died before I was born. Having no family, Albert and his wife Lily made as much fuss of my brother and me as if we were their own grandchildren.

Albert never spoke of the war and at the time I never thought to ask him about it. In any case it is most unlikely that he would have wanted to talk about his experiences with a young boy – I was only 15 when he died. I would have loved to have heard how he won his Military Medal and what he did to earn the commendation “for bravery in the field”.

It is hard, thinking back to the visits to our farm and when re-reading his letters, to find any evidence of the effects of his war experiences. As an old man he walked with a limp which could have been the result of a war injury; in his diary he mentions being slightly wounded in the leg. Mentally, he never showed (or was very careful to conceal) any signs of depression, anxiety or sadness.  On the contrary, I remember him as a jolly, generous and gregarious man, with a twinkle in his eye and a vitality which belied his age. It was as if he was determined to make the most of a life that was spared when so many of his contemporaries were not so fortunate.

Despatch riderAn abridged version of Albert Simpkin’s diary is due to be published in April 2015 by Pen and Sword Books, under the title Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-18.

 After graduating from Edinburgh University, David Venner had a career in countryside management. He is now a family history advisor in North Devon where he also practises rural crafts. You can follow him on Twitter: @davidvenner4,  and on the diary website:

www.despatch-rider-on-the-western-front.co.uk

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Family History, First World War, Guest posts, History, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guest post: “Our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths” : A Great War Memoir

cover resizedToday I am thrilled to host a guest post by Susan Burnett, who has worked with her grandfather’s memoirs to publish a moving description of what happened to Norman Woodcock and the men who served alongside him in the First World War. The book, titled On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind  is published by Acorn Independent Press and available from Amazon here. In this post she offers snippets of the fascinating discoveries she made, many of which resonated with me as I recalled the research undertaken for Shell Shocked Britain.

My grandfather, Norman Woodcock, left me three large files of handwritten memoirs including many stories about his time in the Signals in the First World War. He took part in the landings on Gallipoli, served in the desert with Lawrence of Arabia and was there at the capture of Jerusalem. As I researched and wrote the history to accompany my grandfather’s memoirs, I soon realised how different life was for the soldiers in the Middle East compared to the trenches on the Western Front. In the desert they had to deal with extremes of heat and cold, snakes and scorpions were common, sand got into everything including the food, skin became so dry that it cracked and caused terrible sores, and at certain times of the year sand flies bit and caused fever. On one occasion, as they dug a trench in Palestine, some Australian troops came across a Roman mosaic. The mosaic was carefully removed and packed off to be displayed in a museum in Australia. The biggest difference though, was the shortage of water.

Norman Woodcock, on his horse Timbuc, in Egypt.

Norman Woodcock, on his horse Timbuc, in Egypt.

In his memoirs Norman describes the horrors of the battles he took part in, for example during one battle he describes how ‘some men were afraid, others excited, some were quite mad’. His stories also cover everyday life and in particular the thirst they constantly suffered: ‘our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths’ and on another occasion ‘death by thirst must be terrible’. He describes the problems of not being able to clean anything, including mess tins, so bully beef blended with the taste of tea and jam, and everything had the added flavour of chloride of lime, used for purification. He jokes about how he didn’t wash his shirt for three months but everyone smelled so they got used to it!

Amongst the horror and history of the war there are some great stories in the book, one of the amusing ones is of an intruder to the dugout where three of them slept near the banks of the Suez Canal:

One night we were woken up by noises outside and the sound of someone coming down the dugout steps. Wilkie called out, ‘Who is there?’ There was a sound of footsteps running up the steps. Then they came back again. As we all had our rifles ready, I said I would fire one round at the doorway – so I sighted my rifle and pulled the trigger. There was a sound of feet rushing up the steps and a gurgle of liquid. Wilkie lit a candle. The gurgling continued and I thought the visitor must be bleeding to death. The light of the candle revealed that I had pierced our tank of water, our four days supply. I jumped out of my blankets and tilted it to stop the flow. Next day, we found our visitor, it was a mongoose, an animal that can kill a snake; we had some big snakes about and could have used him if we had captured him. We were short of water until the next delivery arrived, but we were always short of water and became used to the thirst.

Once, in the heat of the desert sun, my grandfather downed tools, refusing to work until the water supply arrived. His comrades joined him and he was arrested and put on a charge. The allowance at that time was 4 pints of water a day, current water rations in the desert are 3 pints an hour! Fortunately Norman was needed for signals work. He could have been shot for disobeying an order but his charge was reduced and he was banished on a one man patrol in the desert for 3 weeks.

Once Jerusalem was captured, troops were despatched to France. Norman set sail in September 1918, arriving in Marseilles:

We had heard some stories of the misery in the trenches from lads who had joined us in Egypt, and so it was with some trepidation that, after two or three days, we boarded the train for the north.

Norman Woodcock in 1985

Norman Woodcock in 1985

Fortunately the war ended soon after he arrived on the Western Front. He wasn’t demobbed until July 1919 and the book ends with him describing the sadness he felt leaving the comrades he had been with every day for five years, and the even greater sadness he felt having to leave his horse called Timbuc: ‘the black beauty that saved my life on so many occasions’.

To find out more, visit Susan’s website at www.susanburnett.me.uk

Posted in Book, Books, Family History, First World War, History, Mental health, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For Remembrance & the Armistice: Some very personal messages……

labelsHave you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget’ -(Siegfried Sassoon)

At the launch of my book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health  on the 22nd October 2014, I offered people the opportunity to take a red luggage label, a pen and write a simple message on it, tying it to the life-sized white wooden tree installations in the event space at Foyles in Bristol. I waffled on a bit about saying something about the evening, about the book, about the nibbles etc, but I also suggested people might want to offer up the names of someone they hold in their heart, as an informal act of remembrance.

I have to say, when I looked through them after the event, I was really moved at the names and comments people had taken the time to note down. So for Remembrance Sunday, for Armistice Day and for posterity I thought I would note some of them here on my blog, and say a huge thank you to everyone who made the event such a special evening for me.

In loving memory of my dear father George who died aged 83. He was an officer in the Royal Engineers and served in the Korean War. Love you always Dad

To the past, the present and for a better future with more understanding and available help x

A cliché but Never Forget

Thinking of my Italian ancestors who fought for Italy in WWI

To Grandpa, who couldn’t bear dirt or to be dirty after the trenches…

John Cant grandfather survived died 1970. Wilfred Carr Great Uncle. Died of wounds December 1917 near Ypres.

For Herbert My grandfather who never spoke of his experiences and I was too frightened of him to ask, hoping for exciting stories no doubt. Now, when it is too late I respect his silence and regret I never got close to him

Remembering Ronald Robertson RIP

To all conscientious objectors from The Society of Friends

Remembering all those women who served abroad In memory of all the conscientious objectors

In memory of my dear and beautiful friend Susan – I will carry you in my heart to every launch, event, exhibition and special place…xx

I also had some lovely congratulatory messages, but I am so pleased that the launch and my book offered people the space simply to remember. We have so little time to think now that we are in danger of losing sight of our essential humanity and connections to each other, and to those people in our lives who have made us who we are.

 

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The best way to market a book? Shell Shocked Britain on ‘blog tour’….

marketingWe have all seen it – on our twitter timelines, our Facebook feeds and our Instagram image lists. The endless stream of book plugs can get really frustrating, as tweets or status updates from people whose lives we connect with get subsumed in links to Amazon or personal websites where a book with great reviews  can be bought at a bargain price. Evidence suggests that if you only follow other writers, and they are the only ones that follow you back; if you just collect ‘followers’ and fail to actually engage and enthuse, or just bombard them with ‘buy me’ links, your books sales will be little influenced by anything you do on social media. Twice daily links and highlights of new reviews are fine, but every hour, just in case I missed it? I think not.

Looking at my own behaviour I know that it takes me a while to get to know a writer online and that recommendations from others I admire hold greater weight. Some authors seem to develop a ‘brand’, rather than work to build a relationship with their reader based on mutual interest and that is something that brings out the cynic in me. Are you the product, or is it the book? I am not sure I want to feel manipulated by a brand; perhaps the Coca Cola of the book world.

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegSo as my own book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health (Pen & Sword October 2014) came up for publication last month I wanted to ensure I did more than just say ‘look at me, I’ve got a book out so buy it PLEASE’. I hate asking people to buy a £1 raffle ticket for a good cause, so how on earth could I ask people to buy a book that might cost them nearly £20?

I have got to know some lovely writing friends via twitter and Facebook and know that I have been encouraged by their approach to grabbing my interest as a reader. I had recently hosted guest posts by both Vivienne Tuffnell (who had just written Square Peg) and Angela Buckley (author of The Real Sherlock Holmes) on this blog, as part of their own ‘blog tours’ so I thought I would give something similar a go. In doing so, I hoped, I could offer potential readers the opportunity to see the sort of issues Shell Shocked Britain deals with, and highlight the legacy of the Great War for Britain’s mental health and whet their appetite for the book. And hope they bought it, of course.

I have to say to any author considering a blog tour that it is no mean feat. I was lucky to have lovely bloggers agree to host me, but I still had to write the posts, find the images and make sure I got the copy to the bloggers in a timely fashion. I underestimated the amount of work it takes to promote a book in the early months. But I am SO glad I did it and I want to send a big ‘thank you’ to all the lovely people who hosted me. Of course, all the (hopefully) fascinating content I came up with to tempt people to find out more is on other people’s blogs, but not here on my own. So I thought I would link to them all on here and encourage you to go over to the other sitesand read not just my article, but others on each of them. All are writers and historians that I admire and I am proud that my writing now sits alongside theirs.

So mind the doors please, here we go….

Stop 1: Shell Shocked Britain – Suzie Grogan shares the crime that inspired her book on Angela Buckley’s Victorian Supersleuth

Stop 2: Is Britain still “Shell-Shocked”? A question for World Mental Health Day on Vivienne Tuffnell’s Zen & the Art of Tightrope Walking

Stop 3: A Short History of Shell Shock by Suzie Grogan on the Leeds Big Bookend blog

Stop 4: Gender & the Great War – The myth of the ‘superfluous woman’ on Emma Jolly’s genealogic blog

Stop 5: Shell Shocked Civilians -Fire over Folkestone and the bombing of Tontine Street on Rachael Hale’s The History Magpie

Stop 6: Avoiding the trickcyclist and nutpicker: First World War home remedies and miracle cures on Caroline Rance’s The Quack Doctor

Stop 7: The Children of Conflict: How the First World War Shaped the Next Generation on Debra Watkins’s Writer blog

Thanks all! And to everyone who has, or will buy Shell Shocked Britain, a ‘thank you’ too. We need to get the mental health message out there and ensure that if this four years of commemoration of the First World War achieves anything it does at least get recognition of the issues current service personnel face  – remarkably similar as they are to those experienced by their shell shocked forbears 100 years ago.

Posted in Book, Books, Family History, First World War, History, Mental health, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Shell Shocked Britain – The First World War & inter-generational trauma

keatsbabe:

I will be writing a post on the Shell Shocked Britain blog tour shortly, but I thought I would share this piece on The Terrace Psychotherapy & Complementary Therapy clinic’s blog ‘Let’s Talk!’, where it looks at links to trans or inter-generational trauma. Thanks to them for featuring the book – I am glad it is of interest to the mental health professional as well as those interested in the Great War and social history.

Originally posted on let's talk!:

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegAs we approach the first Remembrance or Armistice Day commemorations of the First World War centenary  it is appropriate to be mindful of what exactly we are marking on Sunday, and on the 11th of November 2014. Yes, we are offering up our thanks to those who gave their lives in the Great War and subsequent conflicts, but we must also remember those who survived, lived, and are living with the aftermath of the war.

In Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, Suzie Grogan looks at the impact of the First World War on the men, women and children who survived it. How did those four years of conflict affect the way we view the mental health of those traumatised by their experience of war, whether directly or indirectly?

Dr Peter Heinl, in Splintered Innocence and others have long studied how…

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Is Britain still “Shell-Shocked”? A question for World Mental Health Day

keatsbabe:

Today, for World Mental Health Day, my second stop on the Shell Shocked Britain blog tour is the lovely Vivienne Tuffnell’s Zen & the Art of Tightrope Walking. Viv writes wonderful, thoughtful books herself, and inspired the title of my previous book ‘Dandelions and Bad Hair Days. In this piece I wanted to reflect on how far we have, or haven’t, come in the last 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. Statistics relating to the struggles experienced by 21st century service personnel shocked me and on this day we need to recall ALL those who experience lasting trauma from their involvement in conflict around the world.

Originally posted on Zen and the art of tightrope walking:

Today I am hosting a guest post for my friend Suzie.

Suzie Grogan is a London-born professional writer and researcher in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Suzie’s first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling Lives Affected by Depression and Anxiety was published in 2012 and she also writes for a wide variety of national magazines. Suzie also runs a popular blog, ‘No wriggling out of writing’, and presents a local radio show on literature, called ‘Talking Books’.

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In 2012 I edited a book entitled Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling lives lived with depression and anxiety. It is an anthology of poetry, prose and photos produced by more than twenty people good enough to contribute to a monthly guest post slot on my blog No wriggling out of writing. They were prompted by my own story ‘Mental health, motherhood and finding the…

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