A Better Future

Passport checks took too long. Their questions were difficult to hear. Somewhere a dog barked. But they are moving again. Tyres rumble beneath as rain echoes in the boot’s darkness above.

What happened to Great Britain? his daughter had asked. What could he say? How could he explain something millions couldn’t understand? ‘It wasn’t meant to be like this,’ he said. It never is.

He pulls Carly closer as the car boards the ferry. Everything will be alright when we get to Europe, he silently promises her. But he knows it’s a lie. They have names for people like them.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
In response to: Friday Fictioneers, 23 June 2017
Image credit: Ted Strutz


Many thanks to Rochelle for organising Friday Fictioneers.

An Update

It’s been so long since I wrote here, I must first apologise for the protracted absence. One day away just led to another, and then before I knew it that magical momentum had dissipated and no longer drew me back.

The absence was originally due to revising for university exams, which I sat a couple of weeks ago now. It probably went well enough to pass — as long as the examiner can read my handwriting.

The day after the exam my wife and I travelled to London to see Depeche Mode at the Olympic Stadium. That was the night of the horrific attacks. At the time it was happening, the band were performing a rendition of Bowie’s classic song of love, hope, and defiance, “Heroes”. As we passed through London Bridge station on the Jubilee line some 30 minutes later, little did we know the real reason for the station’s closure. It was a dark and worrying time for the whole country.

A week later, our hope for competency and answers from the government were once again put to the test with the UK general election. As though the sitcom called ‘Brexit’ wasn’t farcical enough. We now have a hung parliament led by a robot. But still, let it not be forgotten that Labour has had the greatest increase in votes of any party during this election since 1945. And the clowns otherwise known as UKIP exited stage far right.

In writing news. My current project, which still has the working title of Flat 21, is progressing well. I write every day adding between 1,500 – 2,000 words to it. I am currently on target to complete the 80,000 word first draft before we go on holiday in under a month’s time.

During my work on this, I have confirmed that I am without a doubt a ‘pantser’. I have no concrete plan or plot laid out for this, and this suits me well. I read a useful book called Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Although Bell concentrates primarily on commercial fiction and his three act approach may seem a little too formulaic, he nevertheless has some interesting ideas worth bearing in mind — even for literary fiction.

One thing I found useful was his chapter on ‘plotting systems’. He mentions various method that ‘planners’ and ‘pantsers’ may benefit from — by either becoming more flexible or more structured depending on your preferred method. There is no right or wrong way, just your way.

From this book I’ve adopted a ‘letter method’ in which I write to myself each day, deepening my understanding of the novel as it progresses, asking what next? and what if? In this way the story and my interpretation grows with it daily. I remain open to possibilities and don’t feel restricted by an already drawn up plan this way.

The other method I’ve found useful is described by Bell as ‘headlights system’. The analogy is that writing is like driving with the headlights on at night. We can only see so far in front each time. So this method does not require you to be able to ‘see’ the whole journey, but at least have an idea of the destination in mind. And at the end of each session jot down a few ideas for any subsequent scenes. And this is repeated until we reach our destination.

My approach on this project is less linear and more fragmented than previous attempts at writing a novel. I have no qualms writing scenes which I feel will be at the end and filling in the gaps. Doing so gives me greater flexibility and opens up more doorways and ideas, where a more linear progression may be more restrictive.

My original premise of a man trying to hold onto his sanity — after a portentous event, ushered in by the arrival of a stranger at the apartment block — has grown. It now encompasses ideas of penal reform; it features a group of conspiracy theorists; explores the nature of reality and identity; and the idea of false memories, and parallel universes.

Hemingway once said that ‘the first draft of everything is shit’. Mine is looking more like a car crash. Ray Bradbury described this very well in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, where he talks about stepping on a landmine each morning and then reassembling the pieces of himself. I am content to let the first draft become whatever mess of ideas it needs to be and collect up, and reassemble the pieces in subsequent drafts.

Another useful book on writing is Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Dillard’s book isn’t so much as an instructive manual, but rather a beautiful, poetic meditation on the life as a writer. Dillard superbly threads together all facets of life, from the tiniest insect attempting to crawl up a leaf, the daring life of stunt pilots, to the act of splitting logs, and makes it all about writing. In such a way that anybody who has embarked on the beautiful, painful journey of writing will understand. Writing is not just something we do for brief periods, it is not solely about word counts, plots, and character. It is something we live and breathe constantly; it is something we immerse ourselves into from the most unimaginable pleasures to the most mundane activities.

Writing, Studying, and The National

Things have been a bit busy lately. I’m revising for exams in under four weeks. The only part I’m confident on is the creative writing one; other areas — art history, classical studies, and religious tourism — feel like a huge, watery expanse, in which I’m flailing in. (If only there was an exam on procrastination.)

Besides that, I’m continuing to work on my novel between some house decorating. The novel is going okay — the decorating better. I would like to say the novel is wonderful. But in truth, it’s mediocre at best. I’m learning as I go along. But consistency is the key. Routine is paramount. So, I’m writing each day, with a minimum quota of 1,000 words. I’m slowing things down this time. I have learned that plots are unavoidable. Whether you pre-plan or unravel as you go, it is unavoidable. At some stage you have to consider it.

There’s that famous quote by E.M. Forster:

‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is the plot’.

Things happen, but it is the why they happen that makes for an interesting story. Your characters are capable of thought, motivated by memories and desires, wracked with fears and guilt. All these things drive them. And it is their drive and desire — and the conflict with other characters’s desires — that form the plot, and moves the story along. And with that in mind, it’s worthwhile drawing up a loose roadmap. So you know where your characters are heading to at least, with some milestones along the way.

Unfortunately, all this leaves little time for any other writing, or reading the wonderful, insightful blogs, and stories here. I’m still writing a story I started for the ‘bitter’ daily prompt a few days ago — a story about a hostile, corporate takeover with a murderous twist — which I may pick up on later.

Finally, I was excited to hear The National announce a new single today, the fantastically titled The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness. If you’re unfamiliar with The National, I urge you to check them out today. I remember picking up their album Alligator some twelve years ago, and was struck by three things: the rapturous melodies; the wry, heartbreaking lyrics; and Matt Berninger’s dark, desperate baritone. And with their seventh studio album on the way in September, those things remain strong and fascinate me still.

For me, their music always had that rich, melodious quality you got from early R.E.M. But whereas those Georgian rockers pandered to the angst-ridden student, The National speak to the middle-aged, distressed, white-collar corporate slave; to someone on the verge of another breakdown, pushed nearer towards a precipice of failing relationships and unfulfilled desires. Not happy listening you would think. But their lyrics often sound like a cross between Morrissey and the poetry of John Berryman. The words are so acerbic, and dripping with dark pathos, humour, longing, and self-deprecation, it’s difficult not to laugh or at least smile in awe.

What Keeps Humankind Alive

The sun shining through the bars of the window is the first thing he sees as he wakes. It frightens him until he sees his bare chest. He touches it with unfamiliar hands. He lies there stretching his fingers, obscuring and revealing the light — the light is strange, warm, and makes something inside him stretch out and want to reach for it too.

The last thing he remembers is walking the street. It was late, dark, yellow lights on puddles, people laughing and pointing, it was cold, his friends had left him, he was alone. And now he is here. Wherever here is.

He leaps off the small bed and lands on strange feet — they have uncomfortable fat stubby things on them, five on each foot. He is relieved to see he still has a few feathers protruding from his vital parts, but they malt as he walks to the door. He bobs his head against the metal hatch. The dull thud, rather than the expected sharp tap, hurts his brain. He staggers back as the hatch slides open.

A pink face presses itself against the bars. ‘Ah, well if it isn’t the chicken man. Slept off the booze now have we? Ready to tell us your name?’

He tries to speak but can only cluck.

‘Hey, lads. Looks like our guy’s still too chicken to speak.’

‘He looks more like a cock to me!’ laughs another voice

He presses his painful, bloated face to the bars and sees a group of them dressed in tight-fitting, black jackets with big, silly, silver buttons reflecting their laughing pink faces.

The one behind the door, pushes his nose closer and grunts. ‘Well? Want to tell us what you were doing walking like a plucked chicken out on the high street last night? Do you remember pal? Stag do was it? A prank? Do you remember your name?’

‘It’s no use Steve. Guy’s obviously bat-shit crazy. Let’s wait for the head doc to sort him out.’

He can only cock his head and peck at the door. When it hurts his head, he gives up, dances around the cell a few times clucking. Some things start coming back. The darkness, the hot house where they were all crammed together, the noise, a loud noise, then they were all running, many of them into the night, human voices ushered them on, the outside looked as dark as the inside, but smelt better.

We all have things we try to keep hidden, like a yolk swathed in albumen, that is in turn concealed by a fragile shell. That is the mind. And when cracks begin to form, it is inevitable that everything ends as a sticky mess, and what was kept hidden, becomes exposed and frightening. That is madness. We are all born mad, some remain so. And some don’t know it, until it’s too late.

It’s too late, he thinks. Get your clucking act together. The only way he can get out of this mess, is to pretend to be human, until he can figure out what’s going on. But what he’s heard of humans seems frightening — snapping of necks, slitting of throats, chopping of limbs, that kind of crazy thing. He doesn’t know if he has it in him. But he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. He looks at the pigs, sitting with their big, bloated faces grunting and squealing in their desktop troughs, their pink, hairy ears pricked up, as a duck in a white coat waddles up with a clipboard. He looks at them and thinks, ‘when I get out, I’m going to carve one of you up. I’m gonna be a man. I’m gonna stay alive.’

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
In response to daily prompt: Exposed
Image: Chicken Head by Ann Nguyen / CC BY


The tite is taken from a song written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, which featured in The Threepenny Opera, and concerns humankind’s hyprocrasy and inhumanity. Here’s a wonderful version performed by Tom Waits:

‘We are all born mad, some remain so.’ — Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot.

Scrivener: A Review

As my current project progresses, I am finding the manuscript is becoming quite sizeable. In addition to my main document, I’m also keeping separate documents for my growing collection of character notes, scenes and overall theme ideas. It’s not ideal.

If you’re like me, you may have always done your writing in either Microsoft Word, or the Mac equivalent, Pages. And like me, you may be finding it an unmanageable way of  working as the project grows. You also may have heard about writing tools, but not given them much thought. The other day an article by fellow blogger J.M. Williams brought them back to my attention. So I decided to investigate further.

Writing tools are applications (mobile or desktop) that help you organise your work, so yOU can do what yOU enjoy most — write. They primarily consist of ‘editors’ and ‘organisers’.

Editors

The idea behind these type of applications is to help you write distraction free; the software often runs full screen without the intrusion of colourful icons, toolbars, and ‘ribbons’ that you get with your normal word processor. The idea is that fewer distractions means more focus. Two popular applications in this category are Write Monkey (for Windows) and WriteRoom (for Mac). I’ve only used the latter and have found it effective in the past. You can apply a variety of themes to change the colours and font. And overall, it does a great job in aiding focus by minimising distractions, and that can only be a good thing. However, due to the lack of annotating features, I always find myself going back to Word.

WriteRoom_Screenshot

WriteRoom’s distraction free editor with a retro terminal theme.

Organisers

The other kind of application is an ‘organiser’. The idea behind this is that it helps you structure larger projects into manageable scenes and chapters, it provides a repository for notes and other research material. Some feature their own built-in editors.

Plume Creator is available free for Linux and Windows. However as a Mac user, I had to look elsewhere. And that led me to Scrivener; it is available to try for 30 days for Mac and Windows, and appears to have a long, successful history. However, unlike Plume Creator, Scrivener is paid for.

Scrivener

Scrivener is more than just an organiser, it also features its own editor. It appeared quite daunting at first. But a few minutes watching the tutorial video and I was away.

As with Plume Creator, Scrivener allows you to separate your manuscript into smaller chunks with chapters as folders, and scenes as text files within those folders — as you would organise files on your computer. Working in smaller chunks makes it easier to write and edit, and makes reorganising the plot a doddle — as easy as dragging and dropping. I imported my Word manuscript, and had split it into scenes within minutes. All other notes and comments from Word were also imported.

Scrivener also has a ‘corkboard’ feature which I really like. The idea is that each scene has a little synopsis card attached to it, in ‘corkboard’ mode, you can move these cards around until you are happy with the structure — no more copying and pasting huge lines of text in a single document. You can also organise the structure in a more traditional ‘list’ mode.

feature-corkboard-lg

Scrivener’s ‘corkboard’ feature.

Scrivener also helps by providing the following folders:

  • ‘Characters’: helps you collect notes, research material, webpages, pictures etc. about your characters
  • ‘Places’: for storing information about settings and locations
  • ‘Research’: for general notes regarding your project

The text files are stored in a universal ‘rich text format’ in Scrivener rather than in any propriety format — you can still export to a variety of formats including Word and PDF. It also syncs with DropBox so you can work on it between desktop and mobile seamlessly (as long as you are happy to pay for both versions). Another great feature is the ability to automatically format your document to industry standards for submitting to agents, for publishing as a paperback, or as an e-book. When you are ready to do this, you ‘compile’ your files together, and Scrivener ensures it is consistently formatted for alignment, font, spacing etc. into a number of different formats including ePub and Kindle. In this way, it separates the formatting from the content, so you can concentrate on the writing.

The other nice feature is its own built-in, full-screen editor. At a press of a button the screen becomes a distraction-free black back drop with a single sheet of white paper — you can change the appearance to suit your needs. A nice feature is how it simulates a typewriter by keeping the current line always in the middle, rather than scrolling downwards at each line — a subtle but effective feature. The editor also incorporates word and character counts, and standard spell-checking (for Mac at least).

feature-fullscreen-lg

Scrivener’s full screen editor.

Other features include:

  • Version controlling — take ‘snapshots’ of your documents so that you can restore a previous version, or compare changes at any time.
  • Add keywords, categories, and colours to files. This makes it easier to find and manage all the scenes, for instance by searching for all content that are from a certain character’s point of view.
  • Project templates are provided for novels, short stories, screenplays, academic essays, as well as other non-fiction projects.
  • Project targets — set your desired word count — and optional deadline — and Scrivener will calculate your daily word target.

Conclusion

Overall, I’ve found Scrivener invaluable in helping me organise my current creative writing project (as well as my academic work). I’m impressed with the full-screen editing tool, the way it formats your manuscript, the ‘corkboard’ feature is a nice touch, and version control is invaluable. Having one application to organise, annotate, and write in saves a lot of time and interruption. The only criticism is it may seem overly complicated — the preferences screen alone seems very daunting — but you don’t need to be concerned with every aspect of the software; and the price, currently $45USD, may put some people off; but from what I’ve seen so far, worth the money.

Think of Scrivener as your virtual office, you have folders to put your scribblings, notes, and scraps of research together, you have a clutter-free desk to write on, and a board to pin your index cards and shuffle them around. If you have never considered using an organiser or an editor application before, but feel that your project may soon become too unmanageable, or you become too distracted while writing, it’s worth giving these applications a try.

Resources

Write Monkey (Windows)

WriteRoom (Mac)

Plume Creator (Linux, Windows)

Scrivener (Mac, Windows)

A Change Is Gonna Come

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Sam Cooke, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’

Becoming Mindful of Depression

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know I often write about depression and mental health, whether through non-fiction, confessional pieces (rare), or fictional stories highlighting the absurdity of life and the fragility of mind (common); I feel it is important to discuss such issues, and in doing so, I hope to make sense of them some day, and in turn understand my life — this is one of the rarer confessional pieces.

Depression sucks. It really fucking sucks. It slams you to the floor and kicks you around until you plead for more. Twenty years ago, I spent a few months in hospital recovering after it pushed me over the brink — I have been struggling with it ever since. I was startled to see so many people in a similar condition — some worse. Figures suggest that one in four people have experienced mental illness. In a normal, fully occupied family saloon, that means one person has had mental health difficulties. I’m not saying every family unit has a member who has experienced difficulties, but it gives you a startling picture of how common it can be.

Depression makes everything difficult. Everything. It arrives seemingly without reason, and its effects are devastating. I felt it last night. It is still here this morning. Depression is sneaky, it engages in guerrilla tactics, it crawls through the undergrowth and lunges. I remember looking at a small stain on the floor last night thinking I should wipe it, but the thought became the most difficult thing. And everything else soon fell on top, every thought and feeling like great boulders from the sky. The thought of eating, drinking, rising, pissing, sleeping, waking, thinking, everything became difficult. I don’t know why it happened. It just did. And now I’m suffering.

Imagine a bottle filled with the most glorious, colourful, magical concoction, it sparkles and fizzes, it has a light of its own, when you drink it you are in love — let’s call it ‘joy’; now imagine a great selfish, hulking beast comes out of nowhere, it stamps and shakes the ground, roars, snatches the bottle with terrifying hands, and tips out all the joy, because if it can’t drink it nobody can. Depression turns you into that bottle, empty, held in the shadow of a beast; strewn on the shore, wishing for the tide to wash you away.

I can’t cope currently. I want to quit. I desire release. There I’ve said it. I feel like a failure. In everything. Depression chains you up, it binds and gags you with fears, voices oscillate inside, telling you how pathetic you are, reminding you how you will never be any good. Even a lifting of a finger can seem heavy, filled with dread, and imbued with thousand unpleasant consequences. So you do nothing. Depression paralyses like that. It keeps you locked in a state of inaction, where you can do nothing but watch time tick and mock. It is absurd. But this is what it does. Writing this is difficult, I am forcing myself, but I feel I need to communicate this right now. That maybe someone, somewhere may gleam a little understanding, and feel a little less alone. And for having shared it, I will be less lonely in this condition also.

I am the worst father, son, lover, husband, friend, person, creature in the world right now. I am brimming with self-loathing because I am weak for letting it get to me. I should have fought it. I should be better than this, I should know better by now etc. etc. I am emptied of joy and purpose. Suddenly my novel tastes insipid, my dream of writing a rotting albatross, my studies meaningless — life also. I should have felt its creep, I should have killed it in its sleep before it had a chance to kill me. I only have myself to blame.

I have considered going to the doctor and getting anti-depressants, but I would rather not. I have a love-hate relationship with those drugs. I lost ten years of my life to them. In my experience, the side-effects were often more terrible and absurd than the condition itself — insomnia, loss of appetite, over-eating, over-sleeping, night terrors, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, memory loss — the side effects were like a whole new, fog-filled condition. For many, such drugs can be a wonderful way out. But I am not one of them. My condition is too ingrained now — it already was by the time I first sought treatment. I am it. We are one. Depression has altered my brain’s chemistry.

But all is not lost. Something can reverse it. It is called mindfulness. It has been scientifically proven to reverse and ‘reprogramme’ the detrimental effects of depression. But we can only do it by losing control; by stopping the fight, and let it wash away.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation and has been the only way I’ve been able to cope with my pain over the past decade — that and the love of my wife. I regret not discovering it sooner. I often wonder how different my life could have been if I did. Mindfulness teaches us many things. Primarily, it reminds us to remain in the present, and not get swept away into the painful past, or fearful future. Worrying is a symptom of depression, before we know it we’ve been swept from the shore, drowning in the sea — the only thing guaranteed is the here and now. It also teaches self-kindness and forgiveness. Chasing our emotions for instance, and trying to grab something abstract like sadness or fear and squeeze the life out of it, in an attempt to obliterate, and therefore quell the pain is counter-productive. We just tire ourselves for little benefit — like chasing the wind.

I always forget this because it feels natural to fight and chase something that threatens us. We are overcome by that millenia old ‘fight or flight’ instinct, which helped our Neanderthal ancestors kill those sabre toothed predators. It seems right to take revenge, to chase it down, grab it by the gnarly neck, kill it, and shout: ‘leave me the fuck alone you fucker!’ It’s your life after all. But we are not Neanderthals, and fighting and flying doesn’t work with this beast. We just get ourselves more angry for no reason.

So what do I do when I can no longer cope and want to give up? Nothing. I let go and stop wishing for things to be different. Mindfulness teaches us to let the storm pass — because it will — and to allow the grey clouds to reveal again the sky. It is not our fault, we are not our emotions; we are bigger, more complicated than just a few dark, scary clouds that consume the light; we are the sea and the sky, the mud and the flowers, the rain and the sun of our lives.

With this in mind, what are we fighting then but ourselves? I have a confession to make. I lied. Depression is not the great hulking beast I made it out to be, it is more akin to a child that kicks and screams because it feels scared and lonely because it doesn’t know how to cope. It then follows that we should treat it with kindness, not brutality; we embrace it with benevolent arms, not beat it with angry fists. Sadness is as much a valid part of us as happiness is, without accepting its uncomfortable presence, we will struggle to accept ourselves.

Yes, unhappiness is dark and terrifying, it’s unpleasant and unpredictable, it makes you want to run and hide, it makes you want to cry and die. But by becoming mindful of it, you can start to accept it as something that comes and goes like the tides of the sea. Stop the fight, breathe it all in, open your arms, surrender to be complete. And remember that if you want a beautiful garden, shit helps roses grow.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
In response to daily prompt: Control
Image: Routine – Golgatha I by Hartwig HKD / CC BY

Good Apparel

There was this building once. Some imposing Victorian edifice with nothing but forests around. I don’t know how I got there. One minute I was stuck in a corporate minefield, terror-filled, languishing, propped up in a sales meeting next to other nine-to-five corpses in suits. The next thing I knew, I was in a circle swapping coping mechanisms with other shellshocked survivors of life and mental misfits in gowns.

A small bearded man, who I later learned was in charge, crossed his short legs, leaned back, and stretched out his arms madly. ‘How about you. Yes you,’ he pointed. ‘What are your aspirations now you’re here?’

‘So, erm…I can put my socks on.’

‘Socks?’

‘Yeah, you know, those things you put on your feet to stop them sweating in shoes.’

‘I know what socks are. But that’s your main goal? To put socks on?’

‘It’s not my main goal, but it’s the only one I can think of right now,’ I said raising both bare feet in the air.

‘Well,’ he said rustling his beard, ‘it’s a good a place to start as any, I guess. It is all about emotional apparel, after all. You can put your feet down now.’

‘Emotional apparel?’

‘Hmm…How can I explain?’ he said rocking and hugging his shoulders. ‘Emotional apparel is what you wear in the morning, a bit like socks and pants no one else can see. They define how you feel for the rest of the day. You wear uncomfortable pants in the morning, you’re gonna be restless all day. Same with socks, put on a bad pair, walking’s gonna hurt. Life,’ he said slapping his cheeks, ‘is all about picking the right emotional apparel.’

Suddenly things slotted into place. My socks and pants were the problem. Over the winter, they put together an action plan so I could learn to wear socks with exuberance again, and avoid accidentally slipping on a pair of distressed pants in the process. It took some practice. I couldn’t get the hang of it until they forced pills down my throat; they kept my mind so wonderfully warm and cosy like a thick, knitted, cashmere beanie that the last thing I said as I walked into the forest was, ‘Now that,’ I said smacking my head with excitement, ‘is the mark of a good apparel. Thank you.’

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
Image: Socks by Luca Prasso / CC BY

The Only Path

You know you’ve found your dream when it doesn’t let you sleep. And when it does, it is the first thing you think of when you wake. I had such a dream once — over twenty years ago. Then, I was going through a rough time struggling with depression, fighting with myself to understand my place in the world. I was disconnected and lacking purpose. Then I discovered writing. I wrote stories. The words were like tiny bridges that reconnected me with the world. I had a desire to publish them. People would read them and love them; the connection would be sealed, things once broken would be fixed again — that I would regain place, purpose, and happiness.

But it didn’t happen. I wasn’t ready to release my thoughts into the wild. Depression had killed my self-esteem, I didn’t think I was very good (and I probably wasn’t, but that’s besides the point). All that would come of it would be rejection, I convinced myself, and who needs that in their life? In short, I was afraid. So I gave up. I burned the words, and lost my connection.

I buried the dream, walked away, and finally settled into an uncreative, unfulfilling, although well-paying career in the IT industry for the next two decades.

It was nice for a while. It felt safe. I could sleep. It removed me from that scary ultimatum: kick, scream, and fight for your dream, or languish in defeat — I chose the latter. But my happiness was just an illusion, that of a defeated man who celebrates the absence of struggle — without realising it is the struggle that keeps him alive.

But then the dream called to me again from deep beneath the lost, forgotten fields where I had buried it. I had no choice but to dig it up. I started to write again and awoke as if I had been sleepwalking for twenty years. And now I’ve committed myself fully to ressurect my dream of becoming a published writer — a dream I’ve kept locked up like ageing wine in the cellars of my mind, of which I’m ready to sip from again. I’ve quit the IT industry. I’m back at university studying English Literature and Creative Writing because it’s all I ever wanted to do. I’m still scared, still full of doubt. Fear of failure still clouds my blue skies most days. But none of that matters, because this is my dream and I will hold it, shelter and nurture it, and apologise for abandoning it. Somehow, I will make it work.

So, if something thrills so much it stops you sleeping, if it scares you shitless that you feel like you’re walking a razor’s edge, don’t run away from it, because you may have found your dream. Keep walking — you may not get another chance. Yes it will be hard, it will make you cry and scream, but you will also laugh and sing; bleed for it, plead for it, need it, feed it, live it, breathe it; dry the tears, cry, scream, laugh, and sing again; trust yourself, let yourself go, swallow the pain, banish the vanity, plummet and fall, crawl back up, and keep doing it, again and again and again. Because you know as well as anyone, it’s the only path you want to follow. Do you want to reach the end only realise you followed the wrong one? I don’t.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
Image: Senda by TechNopal / CC BY

Sandra Invites Herself to Dinner

Sandra must have left the door open behind her. Frank turned around and got a fright. Standing in the doorway staring at him with black eyes that sat on a wrinkled, gaunt face, patchy with white stubble, a black hat clasped to his chest, was a man with shoulder length black hair. He stood in the door way looking at Frank saying nothing, cocking his head from side to side as if listening. Frank didn’t know what to say. Was this the ‘crow man’ Sandra had talked about? There was something about his eyes, tranquil and yet full of dark, dead mystery that scared him.

‘Excuse me,’ Frank managed to force out. ‘Can I help you?’

But the man just smiled and dashed away, leaving an empty doorway that seemed to darken as if he had left his shadow behind. Frank’s feet didn’t want to move but his mind willed them along slowly. He crept to the doorway. The man had left a sickly scent, like a mixture of old-fashioned soap and soured milk. Frank peered cautiously down the corridor only to see Sandra hopping back out of her flat a few doors down wearing a small black dress, and struggling with some high heels.

‘Sorry, it took me so long. It’s been a while since I’ve worn this one. Not much occasion now you see. You know what I mean? How do I look?’

Frank clammed up his lips, forced a smile through them, and shrugged.

‘Great! Thanks!’ said Sandra.

This was maddening, thought Frank. Why couldn’t he just be a man about it, chuck her out. Put his foot down. There must be a small bit of him somewhere that was capable of action and cruelty; some part of him that still allowed him to dictate his own life, rather than being pushed around by circumstance. He searched and searched, but found nothing.

Sandra helped him put the aubergines in the oven, reminding him not to add salt, and overdid it with the pepper in compensation.

‘Pepper protects, mum used to say!’

‘Will you stop it!’ Frank felt something welling up inside him that compelled his voice and made it louder. ‘Just bloody stop it! I don’t give a shit what your mom used to say! This is a private meal, do you understand? Private. Me and my wife. I didn’t invite you. You’re not wanted. Now please,’ Frank closed his eyes, trying to find some happy composure. ‘Please, thank you for the help, but this is not the time. Please leave, before my wife comes.’

‘Wow! Sorry. You’ve got issues. You should get it checked out.’ said Sandra. ‘Maybe I should go.’ Sandra’s face became shocked and sad. She put the pepper mill on the side, and walked out of the kitchen muttering to herself.

Frank breathed a sigh of relief. That was all it took. A little anger to get things done, perhaps he should do it more often. But then he remembered that book Mary had written and he struggled to read, where she kept talking about how bad anger was; anger fuelled more anger, it was the sewage that clogged up the drains of our lives, Mary had said. Well it worked here, how about that Mary dear? Put that in your book and publish it. He had no complaints about anger at that moment. Not one, it empowered him; it had bought him the freedom from his strange, needy neighbour to give him space to worry about the new, creepy one while he tried to patch things up, and grovel with Mary.

After a few minutes, Frank heard a noise and rushed back into the living room. ‘Oh! Fuck! No, no, no, no! Sandra, you can’t lie down here! Sandra!’ But Sandra couldn’t hear him, she had fallen asleep, snoring with her mouth open on the sofa, one leg up, and one leg trailing on the carpet. After Frank failed to wake her, he draped a blanket over her, perched on the armrest, and hated himself again.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
In response to daily prompt: Blanket
Image: P1040401 by Seika / CC BY


An extract from my current work in progress, entitled Flat 21. Find more information here.

Making Progress

Thank you for those who have shown interest in my latest project, provisionally entitled Flat 21. This novel is my current priority and is progressing well. Other blogging activity may drop off for a while, but I’ve added a ‘Works in Progress’ section where you can find more information about Flat 21. I’ll post more updates as I go. Thanks.

Frank Gets Depressed

Another day off work, another day in bed, the thin curtains barely containing the glimmering nausea of the cold, spring sun. The first thoughts Frank managed to locate in the vacancy of his brain was the same one as before: ‘I’m trying’.

He’d spent a lifetime trying. Trying to be happy, trying to find love, trying to make marriage work, trying not to get divorced, trying to get a job, trying not to get fired. He was awful at trying.

A week ago, Frank had managed to secure a much sought after morning appointment at the GP surgery.

The young locum with nice legs but a brash manner, looked him up and down. ‘Good morning,’ she checked and double-checked her computer, ‘Mr. Canda. What can I do for you?’

‘I’m not feeling very well.’

‘In what way?’

‘I just feel like things are a struggle.’

‘In what way?’

‘I’m struggling to get up in the mornings.’

‘Are you getting to sleep early enough?’

‘Yes. It’s not just that. I’ve lost interest in things.’ He was going to confess about his love life, his failed marriage, the lack of sex, the lack of drive. ‘Just everything,’ he sighed.

‘How long have you been feeling like this?’

Frank tried to think, but he couldn’t remember. Thinking had become a hazy activity, fraught with the danger of remembering things he didn’t want to, and fighting himself to recall to the things he did; like his credit card pin number while a formidable queue was gearing up their tutting muscles behind him; or where he parked his car in a multi-storey, so he had to walk through all levels which looked the same as every other level, except one of them had a black Mondeo, that was how he could tell he was on the right level, until he realised each level had at least five black Mondeos as far as he could see; eating too had become a tasteless pastime.

‘It sounds like you may be experiencing depression. Have you had any problems like this before? Any history of mental illness in the family?’

Frank tried to think. There it was again. That grey, nebulous haze he used to call memory. His Uncle Dan had been caught walking the streets in a woman’s nightie and after that he wasn’t quite right again; and his old man, cranky, shouty and susceptible to wild mood swings would often lock him and his sister in a cupboard. Was that mental illness, or was that struggling to cope with life? ‘I don’t think so,’ Frank shook his head.

‘Well, congratulations,’ said the locum with the nice legs, ‘it looks like you may be the first then. I’ll write you up some anti-depressants. Do you need anything to help you sleep?’ Frank shook his head. ‘These should help you with your general mood. Take one once a day. And come back and see me in two weeks and we’ll review how you’re doing. Then we can discuss any further treatment such as counselling.’

Counselling, thought Frank. That was a scary thought, that meant exposing himself, opening up, swapping that deceit for honesty again, or making the deceit more honest. It meant being frank. Either way it wasn’t something he was looking forward to.

A week of swallowing the little green and blue capsules religiously every morning with a glass of tap water followed by a slice of toast and wild strawberry jam had done little so far to alleviate the worse of the torpor. The nebulous haze was still there, Mary was still leaving him, he still couldn’t remember the things he wanted to, and the things he wanted to forget kept bugging him like a crazy fly buzzing against his cranium at night.

Another hour had gone. How exactly was that possible. He hadn’t done anything, no reading, thinking, moping, growing, or diminishing; he had somehow wasted an hour just existing without knowing it. He showered and got dressed into jogging pants and a loose t-shirt, he would save his better clothes — his chinos and blue Oxford shirt — for when Mary was here. He’ll pretend it’ll be one of those dining programmes where guests arrive at each other’s houses. She’ll come in a little black dress, present him with a bottle of supermarket Chardonnay, a European kiss on both cheeks, mwah! mwah! Hello darling. Please come in. The table arranged with napkins stuffed into flutes, artisan placemats, some Miles Davis on the stereo, the weather will be nicer then too – the grey skies gone. A cool breeze drifting from an open window. He was looking forward to it. Things were going to change. He was going to sort his life out. He would dig out some dignity, crawl on the floor and beg Mary to stay.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
In response to daily prompt: Grey
Image: Happy pills! Brooches for you! by Pati / CC BY


An extract from my current work in progress, entitled Flat 21. Find more information here.

The Heart Without, Within

Her mom told her everyday to never go down there — and twice on a Sunday. But after years of being told this, there was only one thing Cindy could do. One night, feeling its inexplicable pull, after her mom had gone to sleep, Cindy grabbed her dad’s old Maglite and went to the basement.

She stood on the threshold in her slippers and dressing gown with an ear pressed against the peeling door. It was already past midnight, she should be sleeping, but the extreme stillness wouldn’t let her rest. There was no harm in looking; after all, it was too late to expect approval from her mom. Or that feeling she often saw on her friends’ faces, which she imagined was acceptance or love or something comforting like that — it was too late for that too.

Cindy opened the door. A creak announced a strange draft, one that smelled cold and ancient. She tried the light switch. Nothing. She tried it again. Still nothing. The descent was exhilarating, terrifying, all-consuming; all her fears reeled and cycled together at each step as the torch failed to shine past the heavy curtain of darkness. What was her mom hiding down there? At the bottom, she managed to make out a scattering of odd things: battered, leather suitcases with rusted clasps; scrawled, cardboard boxes stacked and sagging beneath each other — PHOTOS, MEMORIES, DIARIES; worn armchairs sitting on top of each other; her old bicycle with the pink basket parked next to her baby cot. Then she saw a child’s hand. It was attached to an arm on the ground. She stifled a silent scream. But it was only her old doll, Annie.

Then something else caused her heart to erupt through her mind and leave her body frozen. A figure stared at her from the shadow cast by the torch. Cindy’s mind wanted to run, but her feet couldn’t move. She turned the torch slowly until she found a pair of dead mannequin’s eyes staring back at her. The mannequin screamed. She screamed. The mannequin moved. In panic Cindy swung the torch, to her left, then to her right, she swung its weak light and found only darkness. She swung it back, but the figure was gone.

It had moved closer in those short seconds. It was upon her. She could smell its breath. It reeked of alcohol. Its voice was familiar.

‘I told you to never come here!’ The face in the torchlight was strange, yet familiar; the eyes were distant, filled with raw sadness and wet with tears. The voice slow.

‘Mom? Is that you?’

‘You shouldn’t be here.’

‘You scared me. What are you doing here? What’s going on? I thought you were asleep.’

‘Please, go away. Leave me.’

Her mom, whom she was used to seeing as forceful and inaccessible seemed so frail in the gloom of the basement. They stared at each other not knowing what to say. The first thing Cindy thought was, she must miss dad too. But her mom never talked about him, they didn’t talk about him since he left. In that moment, half-clothed in shadows, Cindy realised they didn’t really talk about anything anymore.

She extended her hand and felt the unfamiliar touch of her mom’s, who recoiled as more tears refracted in the beam.

‘It’s okay mom.’

At that moment, Cindy understood nothing is for free, everything had to be earned, companionship, respect, love, nothing is taken for granted; but sometimes, between parents and children, hidden reserves are kept, strewn somewhere among the bric-a-brac of the dark recesses of the heart. It was just a matter of finding them again.

‘Please, leave me alone.’ Her mom cried.

But Cindy didn’t. She couldn’t.

She sat next to her mom on the cold, dusty floor of the forbidden basement among remains of the past. She saw her mom as she had never seen her — vulnerable, fragile. She put her arms around her, her mom recoiled until her slight push became a deep, embracing pull and they held onto each other fully with tears wetting each others shoulders.

‘I’m sorry, honey.’

‘What for?’

‘For failing you. I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to see me like this.’

Cindy said nothing and held her mom closer. How could she blame her? Dad’s leaving was his problem, not hers. And her sadness wasn’t entirely her own fault either. Her parents — grandpa John and grandma Marie — were messed up, and probably their parents too; each generation messes up in their own way and carries a little of the carnage over for good measure. Within that big soup mixture parents force feed their children — that magical elixir, they tell their children is for their own good — is a potent concoction of the happiness and pain they endured, sprinkled with hope that their children will succeed where they failed. Or fear they will follow in their own failures too.

‘I come here to get away from things,’ her mom said.

Cindy didn’t know how long they had been sitting there, but she could see the appeal of descending where nobody came, where nobody could see you, where there were no distractions, and be free and apart. Her mom wanted to keep it exclusively hers, she understood that. But Cindy felt its danger too, of the madness of darkness that consumed, working its way towards the heart without, within, and back again at the sacrifice of all else.

‘Come on mom. Let’s get some sleep. Then tomorrow we’ll clean things up a little.’ She grabbed hold of her old doll. ‘Put some things up for sale. I forgot about Annie. You think anybody will buy this? Maybe we’ll fix up the lighting, put some new chairs here, get some books. You can still get away mom, but isn’t it better to do it somewhere brighter, more comfortable? Or we can go for a walk in the park. Like we used to. How about that? I love you mom.’ She rested her head on her mom’s shoulder like a child does.

‘I love you too, honey. I’m so sorry.’ She kissed Cindy’s hair, the way a parent does when their heart tells them their child is in need.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
Image: _GBD1020 by Gabriele Diwald / CC BY

The Unremarkable World of David

David wakes on swollen mud banks, under the shadow of dead trees where dull rushes struggle to stretch into the brown haze of sky; a lone crow dives and caws above. This is David’s world, this is his mind — where he decided to live long ago — where stories were born, residents became characters, and time was held within its own sphere; where, when real stars died, his continued to shine, vibrant and clear. But something happened. David’s world became sick. Time turned into an unending, bituminous stream, over-spilling and consuming everything. But this is David’s only world — his source of everything. He continues past his old house, near a crossroad of innumerable paths where unreadable signs hang. David finds a rusted cart sagging with wood. It is something new to his mind. He tries to write about it. But worryingly, the cart has no past or future, offers no story, it just exists without meaning or purpose; David doesn’t know how to comprehend something like this anymore. And so, he writes nothing.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
In response to: FFfAW Challenge-Week of April 18, 2017
Image by: Yinglan

Scenes from a Ward

Reg wrapped his towel out of communal showers
in all the wrong places. Jill still can’t forget her eyeful.
—My brother drove down a ditch, says Reg, now dressed.
—How awful. Jill can’t stomach things no more,
since Bill went & got himself a whore.
—Said a rabbit ran out. It’s a dangerous road. Out there.
—Safer here, Jill laughs & lights a cheap fag;
      I accidentally woke today, she sighs,
      for seven days, staring at the carpet.

*

Nurses wheel out drinks, tolling cups announce a procession,
Jill clears cards, wraps a pinky.
—Look at my hair how it’s super curly.
      Makes me want to die. Drinks her tea.
Reg breathes on his glasses — now his mother can’t do it.
—I’m going to Canada when the weather clears.
—It should be nicer than here, says Jill.
      My sister locked me in when it was raining.
      Called the cops. Said I was ill.
      (She’s mad that way.)

*

With a sigh Reg admits:
—I’m sick, (the doctors give an eye)
      I’m gonna study King Arthur. So I can live in the past.
He palms his face, shaving never goes to plan,
the razors here just don’t cut it.

*

So many want out. But Jill can still taste tears.
—If I pick a side, she frowns, it might ruin my soul,
      better to be neutral in here — a hand on her gown.
      And let God decide.
Reg picks pieces of a puzzle,
—I just want earphones in. Be busy. Chores, reading you know?

*

—My brother wasn’t alone.
      My sister was there too. She works in a bank.
      But he’s stubborn, born angry like me,
      that’s why he drives
      everything into the ground you see —
      that’s where mom went. Now he just stands around.
      Doesn’t help.
      Now mom’s not around.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
In response to: NaPoWriMo, Day Twenty-One (Overheard Speech)
Image: #56 by Yasmeen / CC BY


Inspired by real conversations overhead in a barber shop recast into the voices of two patients in a psychiatric ward.

A Game of Chess

With an opening gambit, lines learned from a song,
—Let your puny body lie down lie down,
he unpins her frock; but before too long,
her blockade he encounters:
—The lady’s not in the mood tonight, and walks away.
What a fool’s mate! Checked like that.
What would the boys at the club say?
The board relaid over drinks, he assaults again.
—You look wonderful tonight, my sweet Caïssa.
A calculated book move, this time he can’t lose,
an early en passant, he takes advantage, presses on —
she’s quite a capture. With an exchange of moves
he controls the centre, a kiss on her shoulder, a caress of a bust,
a leg over hers, a cramping emotional move if ever —
what a clever pin, what a clever fella!
But then oh! what a blunder; no defence is required,
this isn’t the endgame he desires.
His bishop’s quite sozzled, in no mood for encounter —
what an epaulette mate, what a patzer.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
Image: Chess 4 by Laury Rouzé / CC BY


NaPoWriMo, Day Twenty: ‘write a poem that incorporates the vocabulary and imagery of a specific sport or game’.

This takes inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land where chess is seen as an analogy for unromantic love and sex.

Notes:

Blockade: A strategic placement of a minor piece directly in front of an enemy pawn.
Blunder: A very bad move, an oversight.
Book move: An opening move found in standard reference books on opening theory.
Bust: Colloquial term for a refutation of an opening.
Caïssa: The goddess of chess.
Capture: To remove the opponent’s piece from the board.
Centre: The four squares in the middle of the board.
Check: A direct attack on the king by an enemy.
Cramped: A position with limited mobility.
Emotional move: A suboptimal forcing move played with the intent of seizing initiative at any cost.
En passant: French for: ‘in the act of passing’; a rule that allows a pawn that has just advanced two squares to be captured by an enemy pawn.
Endgame: The stage of the game when there are few pieces left on the board.
Epaulette mate: A checkmate position where the king is blocked on both sides by his own rooks.
Fool’s mate: The shortest possible chess game ending in mate.
Gambit: A sacrifice (usually of a pawn) used to gain an early advantage in space or time in the opening.
Lady: Slang for queen.
Patzer: A weak chess player.
Pin: A piece that cannot move.
Unpinning: The act of breaking a pin by interposing a second piece between the attacker and the target.

‘Let your puny body lie down lie down’ – The Smiths, ‘Stretch out and Wait’
‘You look wonderful tonight’ – Eric Clapton, ‘Wonderful Tonight’

Picnic on the Beach

Aphrodite leaned in,
whispered a kiss between bites of a peach.
Knees curled up, sands still damp from rain.
On a blanket of surrender and sandwiches.
A serenade of ice cream vans,
children released balloons in celebration,
kites rose like doves into the sky.

I was a creature of pain,
I never knew I was suitable for love again,
until that kiss. Her brown hair waving
sea windward, calling the mermaids’ songs.
The myths were wrong, Psyche had nothing
on her. That was the moment — strawberries on shingle,
wine between nicotine kisses,
bare arms embracing, thighs pressing. I was born
to love and laugh and love and love again.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
Image: Florida – Sunny Isles by Wally Gobetz / CC BY

Lost Ring of Saturn

I am a tree floating in a lake
like a scar that rests on a dying man’s face;
a muddy shore, sandbagged, dirt-bound,
bracing, to spill amid white horses,
and freely drown under the glass blue shelf.

You tell me there’s treasure in empty rooms,
that still wells will bleed,
dead weeds will birth flowers,
feasts will be laid when flies clear,
and one day we will live there.

But I can’t see it where I am,
far away like a lost ring of Saturn,
floating rock in an ice of stars —
born barely burning — caught in my own radiation storm;
temporal, cold, colliding for light and years.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
In response to daily prompt: Opaque
Image: NGC 3455 by Judy Schmidt / CC BY

Moving On

It was supposed to be a quiet Sunday lunch, but Elsie wouldn’t shut up. She kept going on and on; Bill was getting earfuls between mouthfuls.

‘Get over it,’ said Elsie, ‘there is no us anymore.’

‘But, I love you,’ said Bill.

‘It’s over. Move on,’ Elsie kept repeating.

Bill refused, raised his voice, got a few looks. Welled up with tears. She was driving him crazy.

He glanced over his plate at the young couple, smiling and laughing like he and Elsie used to when she was alive.

Move on how? It wasn’t that easy anymore at his age.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
In response to: 100 Word Wednesday, Week 14
Image by: Anjo Beckers Photography

The Handle

No matter what Alan does, the handle always breaks. It is held to the door by four, small screws and has no connection to the one outside — although he finds that when one breaks so does the other. When it breaks on the inside, he has to insert his finger nails into small gaps around the frame and pull the door before leaving; if it breaks on the outside it is easier, he can just push, and worry about having to pull again later.

Damn that handle! Alan stares at it in his hand. It’s going to make him late for work again. The handle has seen better days, it has been mended and taped so many times; cracks are beginning to show, he doesn’t know how much longer it will last. If he fixed it good and proper — perhaps got a new door — it would shave precious moments off his day. Imagine the things I could do then, he thinks. Standing here before the door — perched before this moment of pulling that preceded later thoughts of pushing — he thinks of the wonderful things he could do, if only he fixed the handle. Accumulated together, he calculates the time would allow him to read a third of a book a week, perhaps plan out a career change, sleep more, eat better, put together that online dating profile, get some time at the gym.

If he had a letter box, he could pull it, grasp the metal lip between his index finger and thumb, how delicious that would be; he would already be stuck in traffic now. If he had a letter box, he could attach the handle to a string for later retrieval so he could arrive home in style, with the pretence of turning a handle like most people did. What a sight his door must be when he was at work, those small holes exposed and getting grubbier around their edges.

And what a strange shape the handle is! He’s never noticed that before. It feels so uncomfortable in his hand. If only it were round. How pleasurable his grasp would be then! He would stand and turn it all day long. Holding an oval handle seemed very displeasing.

Alan thinks about the pulling again, locates the optimal place around the door frame to insert his fingers. If only Sally was still living with him, she would be helping him open the door now. She would know what to do. She would have replaced it for something solid, reliable, perhaps made of heavy brass. How happy a handle like that would make him feel. But Alan has been pulling and pushing everyday for so long now, struggling to get in and out, that it would be frightening if he didn’t have to do it anymore. Perhaps he should leave it as it is.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song
Image: handle by Aamir Raza / CC BY