Wednesday, August 28, 2013

that I've got to get out of that river

OK, this blog post may appear long, but I'm sure you'll get through it in a flash. It's like a stream of consciousness, which is funny, considering the subject matter.

I've just returned home from visiting Cairns with my daughter and younger son. It was so great and relaxing up there. Even though we were physically doing lots of active stuff every day, I had plenty of time to reflect on the direction my life seems to be heading. The quietness and idyllic rainforest surroundings were perfect for that, especially when I was sitting on the fourth floor balcony of my sister's apartment in the mornings and evenings. I realised there's a deep current of sadness and frustration associated with my life back home that has me trapped in its tendrils like some deep river plant, sucking the life blood out of me, making me loath to return. I had to examine it to figure out where it was coming from, since many aspects of my life are good. It didn't take me long to work it out.

All writers, especially of fiction, are told repetitively that unlike the old-timer authors of the classics we admire, our job in the twenty-first century is far more complex. We can't sit back and expect our publishers to do it all for us. Nor can we expect publicists and promoters to help, unless we pay them a hefty fee. We have to tackle the business of P.R., promotion and business skills, all in the name of making our names prominent and getting sales for our books.

Yes, it's this that makes me feel as if I'm sitting in a canoe, using all of my strength to paddle against the current, lucky if I stay in one spot let alone make any progress. I know that if I stop to catch my breath, I'll be swept toward a steep precipice with a great waterfall, like Barron Falls, the one Emma, Blake and I just saw in Queensland from the Sky Rail and Kuranda train. Then I'll be swept over to disappear from sight and be wrecked at the bottom.

God knows I've been facing that current all my life. I'm not as good at paddling these particular rapids as other rowers are, but I've been trying with all my might. I've been taking the advice of books I've read, trying to set up book signings, talks, appearances with many people who aren't really all that interested in what fiction authors are doing. "We'll call you if we're interested," they say, and many never do. I've set up stalls at various events, trying to catch people's eyes with a broad smile and sell them on my books, which they had no idea existed five minutes earlier. I've contacted media to organise fleeting little newspaper articles. I've painstakingly tried to work out the best words for catchy press releases, titles, blurbs and announcements. I've made frequent little announcements on social media, just trying to remind people that my books are good, which involves being careful to work out whether I'm coming on too strong. I've tried to do all this with the intention to make buyers want to purchase my books for their sakes rather than to help me out, which involves salesmanship. I've been vigilant to search for other avenues such as guest blog posts and free giveaways. I've examined other promotional websites which have been drawn to my attention. With the help of my husband, I've tried to set up an interesting website of my own. All these things are my way of taking large strokes with my oars.

I've had to listen to plenty of well-meaning advice from spectators, lots of it edged with reproach. "You're not staying in the race properly. Look at all those authors who are far out ahead of you." Yeah, well, there are more quality athletes at this game. Some of them even thrive on all this. It doesn't mean I'm not still doing my very best. "You don't have the right sort of equipment to be rowing on this river. Your personality is that of an introvert." I know that, but if I stop paddling, who's going to do it for me? "You're losing ground. Back in 2000, Christian bookstores helped you sell 2000 copies of Picking up the Pieces. Now you'll be lucky if Koorong are willing to take 10 copies of your books. The falls used to be way further back and now they're just behind you." I know, I know, but with the emergence of eBooks, you never know what might happen. I have to keep paddling. "You're staying in the same spot. Your number of reviews on Amazon haven't changed for months now." That's why I have to keep paddling hard to keep ground. But boy, my muscles are getting tired.

Over the years, the scenery along the river bank has changed a bit, but the main topography is pretty much the same. Instead of the massive cliff of Christian bookstores to row past, there is now the challenge of getting Amazon sales among millions of other eBooks. That involves figuring out the perfect key words in categories and keeping track of sales. Equally daunting terrain and treacherous mountains.

So that's the sort of course I've been rowing. It took twelve days of lying on the bank for a short rest to make it obvious that it's really getting me down. During that time, whenever I logged on Face Book, I noticed my friends all still doing the rowing game as hard as they can. I feel very loath to get back in my canoe and pick up my paddles. My fingers cramp up and my hands have got blisters of RSI and strain. My bottom is sore from the narrow little seat. My spirit is broken, crying out, "Please don't make me climb in there again."

I have to consider its pleas as I step back into my old life at home. I have files of pictures and words urging me to never, never, never give up, and that rewards come to those who press on. I've kept my focus firmly fixed on them for all these years, but my holiday forced me to wonder if setting my face to get back on with it all is really the right thing to do on all occasions. Is it worth climbing back on board the canoe, at the expense of my happiness?

Say this life ends when we're somewhere between the ages of 80 and 100. I'm already approaching the middle, having devoted the best of 40+ years to this dream and this rowing course. Way back in school I declared that a writer was all I wanted to be. Can I really go on though, when it means keeping this deep sadness and anxiety rooted? I have nowhere to go when I do scramble up on the bank, but pull myself out I must. I can't stay in that water any longer. I'm weary. I don't have the Olympic quality which I see in others. At least it won't be much of financial setback to take a break, when all I've ever earned has been virtually nothing.

I'll still be sticking my feet in to paddle, of course. I love writing too much not to. If you want to, you can still keep track of me. I love maintaining this blog. I'll still dabble with promotional opportunities without getting all intense and burned-out about it. For example, we want to get my Quenarden fantasy series ready for Amazon kindle.

The thought of settling to be a spectator instead of wanting to shoot for the moon terrifies me. I'm well aware that a funny paradox has happened. In a way, continuing to paddle against that strong current in my canoe feels more like 'going with the flow' than climbing out will be. I really need a fresh change in my life. If something is wrong, you have to fix it. Is it a cop-out to want to climb out of that canoe? It feels more like a brave, blind step of faith than a wimpy move at this stage. But I don't know what will be on the bank.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

that I think better than a genius

I always thought of myself as a normal sort of a person with strengths and weaknesses. I think I can tell a pretty good story because I love my books, but I'm thick in other ways. I feel confident at reading character but would certainly flounder in a Year 12 Maths or Physics exam.

I was reading a book called "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, and a few chapters suggested that geniuses who soar sky-high in IQ tests often have limitations of their own. A crowd of intellectual students were once given the sort of challenge they weren't used to, a divergence test. They were asked to name as many functions for a brick and a blanket as they could think of.

Well, straight away, I thought what a breeze that one would be. I'm pretty confident I could rattle off several for either of them. You don't have to hone in on some elusive correct answer. You can come up with any silly thing such as doll's house table (brick) or substitute wrapping paper for a large present (blanket).

Apparently, one student could only come up with the following. Brick - building things, throwing. Blanket - keeping warm, smothering fire, improvised hammock, cover for sleeping. Now, the amazing thing is that this fellow is a prodigy with one of the highest IQs in his school.

So wow, geniuses aren't necessarily creative or imaginative. This guy's sharp brain may be able to grasp all sorts of minutiae that would boggle me, but I'm happy being able to think of 100+ random uses for bricks and blankets. A totally pointless skill to have, maybe, but it could add colour to the world I look at. I can't help thinking how boring it would be if I could solve incredibly twisted mathematical equations but never thought of any plots for possible novels.

Not long ago, my husband and I both did a long test compiled by Dr Caroline Leaf, measuring which of the seven pillars of the brain we are strongest and weakest on. These were the results.

Paula - Linguistic, Intrapersonal (I got even scores on those first two), Musical, Interpersonal, Logical/Mathematic, Kinesthetic, Visual/Spatial

Andrew - Logical/Mathematic, Musical, Visual/Spatial, Kinesthetic, Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Linguistic.

So if our two brains were to be slapped down on a butcher's marble bench, they would look like similar grey blobs, but little could anyone tell how differently they fire up and work. Once, the two of us did a silly online IQ test and he supposedly came up two points ahead of me, which he teases me about to this day. I used to get mad because, honestly, I thought he was pretty dense in many ways. Our eldest son and I can be laughing over some subtle innuendo, while he's still scratching his head, not getting the semantics. He has to ask me how to spell things and surely wouldn't come up with many ideas for the brick and the blanket. Balderdash is his least favourite game and he couldn't thresh out a blog post or write a book.

However, he's a whiz at remembering directions to places, and returning in a bee-line a second time without having to consult maps. He picks up computing and mathematical concepts in a flash and often has to help me out with computer glitches, which he sometimes says are only glitches in my head. He knows a lot of information about all sorts of things, making him the ideal person to run possible plot twists past, or say, "I dunno, go and ask Dad."

He gives the kids advice like this. "Whenever I come across a word in a novel I can't pronounce, I just call it 'wheelbarrow' and whenever it comes up again, I say, 'Oh, there's wheelbarrow again.' You go and do the same."

But I get myself all flustered over diagrams in instruction manuals, while he hardly needs to refer to them at all. And I'd far rather play Balderdash than Chess or Othello.

The brain is a strange and mysterious organ. When I think of all this, and also how astronomically talented autistic people may be at different fields, I'd hesitate to judge anyone's brain as better or worse than anyone else's, despite the facetious title of this blog post.

Monday, August 5, 2013

She was a tragic princess

Fairy tales are full of princesses whose stories end happily, but reality shows there have been many tragic ones. There was poor Princess Diana, with her marital sadness and untimely death, and Princess Grace of Monaco, who had an equally premature death on the road. Then there was Little Princess Anastasia, casualty of the Russian Revolution, along with her whole family. Further back, there were some of the unfortunate princesses who were chosen by British King Henry VIII to be his wives. But the princess I'm thinking of lived years before any of these. She was Michal, daughter of King Saul in the Old Testament.

We first see her as a beautiful young woman who has fallen in love with David, her brother's best friend. Like many other girls, her head is turned by his heroism, dexterity, good looks and humility. At this point, Michal seems to be luckier than any of the other girls, because she's in the position to win the man. Her father is the king, and he can pull strings, especially when using her fits his plan. You may remember, David won her with one hundred Philistine foreskins.

Then comes the part where she shines as a heroine. When the life of her beloved hero husband is threatened by her jealous, aggressive father, she helps David to escape, inventing the ruse that he's sick in bed.

She gets taken away to be the wife of one of her father's generals, named Paltiel. Then some time later, after King Saul's death, David, now king, decides, "I'd like my wife back" (although he had plenty of other lovely spouses, such as Bathsheba and Abigail).

In Hollywood, this may make a great story. We'd all be cheering, thinking it's just how it should be. The heroine helps save the hero's life and now he has rescued her and they are back in each others' arms. The problem for Michal is that it is no longer this simple. Things have changed.

We see her new husband, Paltiel, following along after the chariot in tears, pleading for his wife back until David's men forced him to turn around. It's easy to surmise he must've been a sensitive guy who was deeply in love with her. Although the Bible doesn't delve into their life together (because after all, David is the main man), I imagine that life with a fellow who was so gutted over her departure may have been mutually romantic and satisfying. Would Michal have returned Paltiel's feelings?

She's no longer the girl who lovingly helped David escape. She's turned tight, bitter and resentful. She stands at the palace window watching him dance at the head of the procession while the Ark is brought home to the city, and feels scorn in her heart. She might have thought, "Look at him, going on about God's goodness. God never helped me or made things turn out well for me." Then she makes that sarcastic comment about how His Majesty has esteemed himself, dancing around like a silly lunatic, scantily clad in front of all the onlooking females. Her feelings for David seem to have changed over the years, reinforcing my opinion that maybe she did love Paltiel.

David rebukes her, saying that he has a right to celebrate, seeing how God rejected her father as king and chose him instead. Then scripture gives the impression that Michal was punished by God for this incident, and remained barren all her life. (I've read the theory that David might have ensured that she had no children, keen to eradicate all of King Saul's bloodline from his own lineage.)

I felt sad for her, because she was obviously in a very dark head space. If anyone had anything to be darkly resentful about, it was Michal. Being used as a political pawn rather than a person, torn from two husbands without her feelings being considered either time. And her beloved brother was dead. I like to think Jonathan and Michal might have been close, in their mutual regard for David way back in those early days in their father's court. If there had been psychiatrists couches back then, she would have seemed a person with a perfect right to lie on one, venting about the others, who were responsible for her bereft state and her deep depression.

I wondered why God didn't do anything for Michal? I wish he had. Those things that happened to her were not her fault. If we know enough to piece her tragic story together from scattered references in the Bible, God would have surely been aware of her plight. Yes, he could've helped her! Why didn't he?

The fact that no divine help seemed to be forthcoming makes me stop to think. What if God is always willing to provide help and comfort, but our attitudes put a wall in front of our hearts, blocking us from receiving it? Surely that snarky comment she made shouldn't have been enough to bring down the punishment of childlessness upon her head. (I can even imagine myself saying something similar, in her place.) But what if that comment was the result of a pressure build-up, just a sign of what she'd been brewing in her heat for a long time? Perhaps it was a sad matter of free will. She'd deliberately chosen the sour attitude behind the cutting comment. She'd nurtured the bitterness, resentment and grief until it was something huge. She might have wrapped it all around herself like a blanket she was loath to shed.

 Arguably, she had a right to cling to all that, but if she thought she was hurting anyone else by doing so, she was wrong. David had his other wives to console him. She was only hurting herself. Insisting on brooding about the past instead of facing the future never seems to bring happiness. Michal called David ridiculous, but maybe she unwittingly made herself pathetic too, becoming something like an ancient Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. I feel very sorry for her.

It would seem Princess Michal was not a person like Victor Frankl or Corrie ten Boom. They made the choice to forgive the perpetrators of their grief and move on into a clear future. They didn't deny their terrible memories but allowed them to make themselves better and stronger. Frankl and ten Boom were more like coffee beans, while poor Michal was more like an egg. Boiling water softened and brought goodness and flavour out of them, while it hardened her. Michal was a person who set her mind to believe that God didn't see her or care about her, and that attitude helped make it seem real for her.

Hers is not the happiest story in the Bible and I guess the best way to honour her memory, if we feel sympathy for her, is to keep a guard on our own attitudes, which are so easy to creep up on us, as Michal's did on her. As Victor Frankl said, no matter how desperately things may appear or actually be, we always have the ultimate freedom to choose our attitude.

Here's a post about another brooder, who probably even rubbed shoulders with Michal. This young guy had issues
And this one is about another young man who had a good attitude. Do the right thing just because it's the right thing. 
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