Not Dead Yet
A few months on and I'm still - surprisingly to me - still here. Current medications are holding the melanoma metastatic tumours in abeyance - temporarily. Problem is, when I ask how long the meds will keep working, the medical profession can only give me 'we don't know' as an answer. Somewhere between 6months and maybe a year is their best guess.
So what does one do? Well, I've spent a week or so binge-watching a bunch of shows people kept recommending. But now the tumours are giving me a bit less grief in the brain-function department, I feel that just watching shows is a waste of valuable time.
Now I'm trying to split my time between writing (when I'm not too exhausted) and laughing with my family and friends (when covid allows me access to friends).
Not a bad way to spend the time.
And, with any luck at all, I can get the sequel to Blackbirds Sing out sometime in early 2021. Argh! I just set myself a deadline. Now I'm committed, aren't I - because that's kinda how I work. Sigh...
Well, wish me long life and luck.
Wow. This one’s tricky and will be the last post.
When I was younger, I experienced a couple of instances where I was genuinely worried that I might be either killed or violently injured. That was, in fact, a large reason why I took up martial arts.
Now, unfortunately, I’m staring down the barrel of a potentially slower death. I’ve recently been diagnosed with metastatic melanoma/cancer. Yes, we’ve tried all the options and nothing has worked beyond buying a couple of extra months.
Martial arts often has an underlying ethos around confronting potential death with grace and honour. Which is easy when you’re on the mat, but harder when it’s reality.
When you’re faced with sudden death, there’s not a lot of time to think. It all happens too fast. How you handle it physically and mentally is related to your past experiences and training. You just…react and try to survive in that short, sharp, painful moment. Then, afterward, you deal with the fallout of post traumatic stress etc.
If you’re wise, you take your survival and run with it - absorb the wake-up call and stop fucking about with your life; start to DO the things on your bucket list before it’s too late.
When you’re presented with the uncertainty of a potentially lingering death, there’s too much time to think. And no clear deadline. You start to regret the things you never had a chance to do; or worry about how your loved ones will cope without you; or wish you could help to make it easier for family and friends.
Then there’s the problem of Denial. I have a huge To Do List for my writing career but motivation is tricky right now. Denial makes it hard to believe my planned next 7 books won’t happen. Death isn’t in my face this exact minute, and who wants to believe it, anyway? It’s also difficult to do anything when it feels ultimately pointless.
Which is where you, as a human and a writer, need to make some decisions now – BEFORE you’re faced with the prospect of either form of end.
If you are sitting there, not writing (or not doing anything you have on your wish-list) because you’re afraid of ‘what people will say’ or whether your work will be ‘recognised/successful’, then remember:
If you die without ever writing what you need to say, the world is a worse place because of it.
If your words help just one person get through a tough day, then they were worth writing.
If your story will help one lonely child or dying adult feel understood, then get your pen out, now.
Don’t let fear of people stop you from contributing.
Don’t let fear of ‘career-dying’ stop you from sharing yourself with the world.
Your career won’t end/die if you make a mistake or write one truly terrible story. The only way to end your dream is to stop writing.
And, one day, when you are gone… your words and thoughts might be the only slivers of you left for your family and friends to cling to and treasure.
We take our lives and loved ones so much for granted it’s ridiculous.
Mortality gives meaning to life. Use that knowledge wisely. Get off your arse and do things. Learn new skills. Help people make the most of their lives. Hug people more often.
Learn how people think and create characters who think differently from you. Then learn from them.
Be the person, the parent, the lover, the friend, the writer, that you’ve always wanted to be.
Be kind. Be generous. Be more than you thought you could.
Dying is difficult, messy and painful. But dying without living, first, is even worse.
You won’t ever regret being more, but you will regret not trying to be.
When you write THE END on your story, or your life, know that you gave it your best shot; lived and died with grace and honour that would make your sensei/master/friends/family proud of you.
I don’t claim to be an expert in mental health by any means. All I can give you is my perspective on the things that have affected me over the years and hope it helps you in some way.
These last couple of months have been… challenging. For reasons I’m not yet prepared to go into.
But it has made me think about what I’ve learned over the years from doing martial arts and from writing, and from all the other things I’ve done through my life.
I was raised on the old mindset of ‘being perfect/excellent at something the first time you try equates to being valuable/lovable.’ It comes from when parents praise kids for their birth-traits (beauty, speed, strength, intelligence etc) rather than their learned traits (determination, focus, hard work, willingness to fail and learn). Or parents who constantly criticise their kids for NOT being perfect the first time.
So my self-worth came from being good at things the first time. Which creates a nasty self-esteem loop. If you’re not good at something the first time, then you’re a failure as a person and not lovable.
(NOTE: I recommend a book called ‘Mindset’ by Dr Carol S Dweck to understand how this affects you and your kids)
But, because I have a genius-level older brother to compare myself to, I also had to work my arse off to BE good at anything the first time. And that habit of working hard and learning builds over time and becomes habit, making the next skill you try easier because you’ve already learned to control your body, or your mind. I just didn’t realise that’s what I was doing, until much later in life.
In the dojo, we get a LOT of people who start and think they will be instinctively brilliant at martial arts. And sometimes they are – to a point. But there is ALWAYS a moment (in any skill) where you hit a wall. Where your natural gifts are no longer enough for things to come easily. Where you actually have to fail, learn, and work to get better; to improve.
That’s the point where most people raised in the wrong mindset give up. And all the excuses come out.
They’re tired. Martial arts hurts. They have to work late. The traffic was too heavy and they couldn’t get to class. Someone in the dojo wasn’t nice to them. Someone in the dojo told them what to do and they didn’t want to hear it.
You hear them all.
But really, it boils down to insecurity. A fear that you weren’t good enough the first time you tried, therefore you’re inherently flawed and will never be good enough.
Which leads to anxiety. What do people think of me?
If we could take anxiety about what other people think away from humans, the world would be a vastly better place.
There would be no need for the dominance games that go with tribal/troupe living. No need for the constant belitting of others in an attempt to make yourself feel better. None of the nagging twist in the guts, the whisper in your ear, the checking to see how others are responding.
Writing is no different. You write and put your work out there. If you’re smart, you’ll do some learning and test the waters with beta readers before you publish, but many people don’t. And in this age of self-publishing, it means you can get some nasty trolling from people who are horribly insecure and desperate to pull others down.
What people say about you is a mirror of their own insecurities and fears.
This is where mindset makes a huge difference. Every time you fuck up (or someone says you have), it’s an opportunity to learn, to accept that you’re not perfect – AND to accept that it’s OK to not be perfect. You’ll never please everyone. Nor should you try.
Getting back up again off the dojo mat. That’s where the toughness comes in. Coming back to the dojo after you’re bruised, exhausted, in tears, and feeling like you’ll never get it right. That’s where the mindset comes in.
It’s really easy to hide at home and try to avoid the trolls, the negativity, the potential of failure.
But every time you get out of the house; get back up off the mat; go to a workshop to learn how to be a better writer; put pen back to paper again in spite of criticism… that’s where mental toughness and health is.
And it builds. It gets easier.
Your brain knows you can get up again, because you’ve done it before. The neural pathways exist now. And the more you use those pathways – by getting up, ignoring the trolls, writing anyway, learning more – the easier those pathways become to tread.
Until the pathways of mental toughness become wider and stronger than the ones of anxiety and fear.
Anything worth doing will only come with failure and learning. You just have to choose the right path each time to get to the destination you really want.
But it takes time. And effort.
And which path to take is a decision. Your decision.
Not an easy one every time. Believe, I know.
And it's ok to ask for help, too.
This month has been all about passing on what I know. Mostly at work because I’m trying to step back. And it made me realise that passing on knowledge is a survival skill. On an evolutionary level it helps our offspring to survive, and on a personal level it helps us to survive.
How? We’re a troupe/tribal animal. We need other humans to help us survive on a physical level. So the more people who know the important information about hunting, gathering, making fire etc, the more of our troupe (including us) are likely to live.
But we also need to feel valued, respected, even admired – some more than others. Because that ensures us a place by the fire, food to eat, comfort and succor when we’re unwell. Being a font of wisdom helps us gain that respect and in turn gives us all the feels. So our mental health is (at least a bit) dependant on being accepted, admired, respected in our troupe and in our family.
But it’s a double-edged sword. When, exactly, are we Qualified to pass on our knowledge. When do we know enough to make sharing valid? We’ve all met people who know a little and come across like they know it all – we lose respect for them when their lack of skill shows through.
In the dojo we see this a lot. White belts, having newly learnt how to twist people into human origami, are eager to share with anyone who is dumb enough to put their hand out. Even brown belts tell everyone they are a brown belt and eagerly demonstrate the latest skills.
But in a good dojo, you’ll find the higher the blackbelt, the less likely they are to tell you what their belt colour is or demonstrate without good reason. They don’t need anyone’s validation.
I still remember when my Sensei handed over my shiny new blackbelt, embroidered with my name in kanji. He bowed and said with a wry smile, “Now you can begin to learn.” And I understood what he meant. I felt humbled by the sheer weight of what I DIDN’T know. The subtlety of the art I still didn’t understand. The skill of the higher belts. Their willingness to both help and let me learn for myself.
I also recall a blackbelt who, after doing something unbelievably arrogant, was stripped of his belt. He had the choice of leaving the dojo or starting all over again. I respect deeply that he started again. Re-did every grading until he got back to blackbelt. It took him two years. He became a much better person. Shut up more. Put aside his ego.
Both his character and his skill have now been proven beyond a doubt.
In writing it’s a lot harder to tell who you should respect; who is worth listening to. Anyone can put up a website and call themselves a ‘best-selling author’, or an ‘editor’. Anyone can spout advice on writing, story structure, character arcs. As a new author it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of advice – some conflicting, some useful.
And, as a new author, it’s very easy to get sucked into the desire to pass on what you’ve learned to someone who might be just a couple of steps behind you.
That’s whitebelt thinking. Please try hard not to. Remember there are better places they can learn from. Editors registered with a valid organisation and with qualifications and experience. Authors with mega-best-selling books (not just #1 on a niche Amazon category in a small country). Entire Writers Centres giving high-quality workshops. Writers Conferences all over the place.
You don’t need your ego validated. Focus your time on learning more, on improving your own writing. Try to refrain from teaching others until you’re at least a brown belt – until you have a couple of well-respected novels or short story collections out there in the world. Until you’ve been recognised by others in the industry as having the skills to engage and excite readers.
I’m only saying this because I made this mistake, myself. Tried to help others – very well-meaning, as we all are – earlier than I should have. We’ve all muddled along ok, but I could have done better. Could have given them better advice. Definitely could have shut up more.
Like martial arts, writing should not be about ego and having people look up to you. For me, personally, both are about doing something you’re passionate about; becoming a stronger, better person; living a richer, fuller life. Then, when you’ve mastered your art… that’s when you pass on what you know to those who want to hear it.
It might not be that way for you, of course. Your choice.
But for me, writing is not about gaining admiration. It’s about learning and growing and turning that into stories about life.
And I'm only beginning to learn.
Life has a habit of interfering with our creative passions. Work gets in the way of writing, family gets in the way, even cleaning gets in the way.
But it's funny how a life-threatening situation focuses your priorities like nothing else.
As a martial artist, one of the most crucial things you must do is decide your priorities. Both BEFORE you ever get into a threatening situation, and WHILE you're in it. These are actually two different mindsets. Before you're bailed up by a badguy, you need to know what you're prepared to do - how far you're prepared to go to protect yourself or your loved ones. Will you only twist arms, or will you break them? What is your priority - survival or not doing serious damage? The two may be incompatible. If you haven't thought about your limits and what's most important to you in advance, you'll hesitate and lose the chance to choose.
During a situation, you need to also prioritise what actions will get you the optimal outcome. Running away is great. Failing that, talking your way out is good. Failing that, doing MINIMUM damage in order to escape is important for both legal and psychological reasons. Your last choice should (in our society) be causing serious injury or death. But again, if you haven't trained in understanding how to assess the situation and prioritise each choice, you'll fail to do so under stress and default to something useless or terrible.
The problem with writing (or anything creative) is that it's highly unlikely to be something you prioritise due to a sudden, life-threatening situation. Pen and sword metaphors aside.
We focus on the mundane parts of our lives over the creative ones because the mundane is (at its basic level) ABOUT survival. If we don't earn an income, we don't eat and eating equates to survival. If we don't care for our offspring they don't survive, and we are genetically programmed as a species to reproduce and nurture.
So we prioritise eating and care for offspring over pretty much everything else. And we view our lives as being fuzzily endless with an unlimited number of 'one days' during which there will magically be time to do the creative stuff our brains love.
As writers, we need to find the balance. Otherwise life becomes so much about caring for family and putting food on the table that we never get around to filling that black hole in our gut with the creativity light.
Until it's too late.
So my best suggestion, right now, is think ahead. Stop for a second an imagine you've just been told you have sharply limited time left. You now have to truly prioritise what you are passionate about. If it's writing, then decide exactly what you want to say. And put it on the top of your To Do list for once. So what if the bathroom isn't spotless, or your kids go to bed a bit late? So what if their clothes aren't ironed or they eat nothing but hotdogs and mac and cheese for a couple of days while you finish the story? They'll survive, I promise. They might even learn to cook and clean.
Think now about what legacy you want to leave behind. Family, yes, but you have something to say as well. Don't leave it too late to prioritise what makes you unique to the world. What's inside your head.
Your gift. Your words. Your voice.
Let's face it, people are both incomprehensible and fairly predictable. It's a maddening dichotomy that causes much angst. We (unconsciously) expect people to think and behave as we would, then are astonished, blindsided, and often angry when they don't.
One of the most important things you can have as a martial artist and as a writer is the ability to put yourself into someone else's head. (Not literally - unless, perhaps, you're a horror writer doing hands-on research. Ew!.) To understand WHY they chose to think and behave a certain way.
As a martial artist, you develop the habit of watching people. Scanning them up and down. Analysing their behaviour and predicting what they might do next. It's a useful habit even if they aren't a threat. People usually give away their next action in their body language and facial expression.
It's quite hard NOT to judge and anticipate behaviour based on how people look, speak and act. As a troupe animal, humans rely on 'reading' their companions' moods and reactions in order to adjust their own behaviour to 'fit in' with the troupe (and therefore survive).
A good martial art just trains you how to read people for a slightly different purpose - to deliberately neutralise threats before they emerge.
As a writer, it's vital to learn to understand people. Because the more you learn to anticipate how people will behave in any given situation, the more you'll be able to write people who aren't YOU on the page. If you would never dream of cutting someone off in traffic or working 80 hour weeks - because you're just a super-chill, easy-going person - then you'll have difficulty writing an aggressive workaholic.
You don't have to BE the characters you write, you just have to deliberately study how other people think and behave.
Which results in the ability to write a wider variety of characters that act in ways consistent to their own, unique personalities.
And, as an awesome side-effect, it might even help you be more accepting and tolerant of people you love but perhaps sometimes get on your nerves. Or people you've just never understood before.
Lets face it, any extra tolerance and acceptance is a great thing in today's world.
So go out and dig up a few books on personality types, on psychology, on human behaviour. Learn to understand people so you can write 'real' characters.
Maybe even help neutralise threats by making people more openminded and accepting.
The last week or so has been tiring - especially for an introvert. A people-y writers conference (great, but tiring), christmas parties etc. So at one point I had to just stop and listen to my body and say 'Nope, staying home today.'
In martial arts, learning to control and listen to your body, then adapt your skills to suit is crucial. A dojo might teach a technique the same way to everyone, but that doesn't mean it will work for you the way it works for the guy next to you. Trying to do it exactly the same will, in fact, lead to frustration and poor skills.
Every person is unique in the way they move, the way their body works (or doesn't), their speed, muscularity, flexibility etc. My husband has extremely inflexible joints but mine are hyper-flexible. Our actions to perform techniques are different to compensate. Things that work easily on him have no effect on me, and visa versa.
You may have physical limitations that mean the technique needs to be modified to suit your body. Perhaps your knees are dodgy, or you have shoulder injuries. If doing a technique in a certain way physically hurts you (beyond just a twinge), then STOP and find a new way to achieve the result you want without damaging your body.
Ignoring a small amount of pain is good as it teaches you to push through inconvenience to achieve your goal. Ignoring extreme pain is stupid and will result in permanent damage.
Don't let pain and discomfort or limitations hold you back. Just learn to listen to your body and adapt. One of the best martial artists in my dojo had only one arm.
In writing, you'll get handed a lot of 'writing rules'. Show don't Tell. Don't use Filter words. Don't start with a dream sequence. Your Inciting Incident MUST be at 12%. Use only 'said' and 'asked' as dialogue tags. etc etc.
And many of those (and other) bits of advice are helpful and will improve your writing if you're an emerging author - even if having them pointed out in your writing is painful and distressing. Ignore that pain. It's minor and important to push through. Definitely don't write off your editor and arrogantly dismiss their suggestions for improvement. That would be like ignoring your multi-blackbelt sensei.
Think of the 'rules' as the martial arts techniques. Once you understand them, THEN you have to listen to your own body and mind. Listen to your gut and do what serves your story best. Sometimes Telling is the best way to get from one scene to the next without tediously showing a long trip across boring deserts. Use a 'wrong way to do it' IF it is vital to the story and with the awareness that it might not work and you might have to experiment with something else.
And - even more importantly - listen to your body when READING. If you want to learn how to build tension in a story, read a thriller and take note of when you feel the tension twist in your stomach. Then stop and re-read the passage to see how the writer did that. If you find yourself crying, stop and re-read to see why you got so emotional.
Paying attention to your body's reactions when you read will help you become a better writer. And once you understand the 'rules' you'll be able to modify the techniques to suit your story and be deliberate about how you guide your readers' emotions.
I've spent the last month or so being utterly unable to write anything. Not because of writer's block, but because of Too Many Things To Do. We all go through times like that. It's not the end of your writing career, but you might need to take a step back and reassess your goals and priorities.
There are a couple of useful concepts in martial arts that translate directly to writing and help with this. You may have heard of them.
The first is Monkey Mind. It's most frequently referenced in meditation studies. When you're trying so hard to focus on something (breathing, a specific technique, being at peace, repeating something you just did really well) but your mind WILL NOT bloody settle and focus. Things pop in: you have to do the shopping on the way home; did the kids do their homework; that horrible person at the office; how very bad you are at (fill in the blank).
Your mind jumps from idea to idea, thought to thought, running and scuttling through your memories. It's difficult to stay calm or focussed. Your body won't what it's supposed to in the dojo. And learning a martial art requires you to consciously train your body to the point where the movements become unconsciously easy.
The point is: It's nigh on impossible to achieve any sort of success in what you're attempting while your brain has been hijacked by monkeys on speed.
The second concept is that of No Mind. Which is pretty much the polar opposite of monkey mind. And also quite hard to achieve without practice. It's where you can let go of all the monkeying about. Not so much to focus, laser-like, on one thing, but to free your mind from all distractions. To achieve a state of peace and calm.
In the beginning, No mind IS more to do with just being able to let go of the distractions and concentrate on one skill. But as you get better at martial arts, and the body movements become automatic, no mind becomes more about emptying both mind and body of all tension and distractions. Of concentrating on nothing and just allowing your body to move and your mind to be open to what's around and might be a threat - without worrying about it. Because thinking and worrying affects how your body reacts. How fast, how well, How accurately. If you're worrying about what one guy is going to do, then you're blind to the other guy's actions. Or you'll second-guess yourself and stuff up the technique.
No Mind is the ideal state when going into a fight. It allows you to act quickly and think logically without being too badly affected by adrenalin and stress.
Similarly with writing, if you have a massive To Do list and are constantly doing or remembering other little (and big) tasks, you'll get no writing done. Or at least none that you're happy with. Monkey Mind is a terrible state for writers - or any creatives.
No Mind works well for writing. But instead of achieving it through practice of body motions, you can try meditation and breath control. Take meditation courses. Do guided sessions. Learn to empty your mind of all distractions. It takes time and patience. But when you can do it, your mind will then be free to concentrate on one thing - your writing - instead of on fifty.
We all have too much on. Too many things that seem utterly vital. But you'll feel better and achieve more lasting success if you do one thing at a time well, instead of ten things badly.
Learn to free your mind and your writing will flow more easily.
Haven't done one of these in a while. Life got a little crazy. I forgot to stop and just be; just breathe.
We all live insanely busy lives. Apparently 'busy' is the new black. It's easy to forget to centre yourself.
In Aikido one of the key concepts is breath control. Breathing in to prepare for a throw or lock. Breathing out when you throw someone or put a lock on. Regulating the flow of breath so you're not gasping for air because of exertion and adrenalin. Some branches of Aikido talk about the 'spiritual' element to the exhalation and its connection to power, but there are actually some very practical reasons for breath control.
First: your brain analyses the scent of the air and uses it to judge danger. The smell of a wild animal; the smell of fear sweat; the smell of off meat. It's a warning signal that can trigger a fear-response in you. That causes a cascade of chemicals in your blood preparing you for fight/flight type responses. Your reasoning mind goes a bit haywire and you become generally terrible at making smart, cool decisions.
So if the stress is purely in your mind - your own anxieties, not any physical danger - then taking slow, deep breaths helps show your mind there's no actual threat. So it can help to calm you. That's why meditation teaches so much on breathing. It gives you something to focus on to distract you from the quicksand of fear and anxiety.
And breathing out - whether accompanied by a strong 'ki-ai' cry or just a sharp breath - does help to focus your power when you're throwing or locking someone up.
Breathing and recognising how breath can affect your thinking and emotions is essential in martial arts.
Actually, it should be essential in everything. In writing, you'll often be faced with roadblocks. Either an overwhelming amount of 'stuff' to do to achieve your writing career goals, or perhaps 'writers block', or the stress of trying to understand and interact successfully with people.
In pretty much every instance, if you step away and take a few long, deep breaths, you'll find yourself calming down. Meditation is a brilliant way to settle your mind and help you find what's really important.
So next time you're stressed about a story going wrong, or a bad review, or some apparently insurmountable problem.... just take a few long, slow breaths in and let them out. Relax your shoulders and jaw. Feel the breath go right down into your body's centre. Release it on a scream if you need to. Or just let the stress go as much as you can with each breath.
Your brain will 'taste' the air and understand there's no external threat and the stress hormones will start to reduce in your blood and brain.
There are weeks when I look at my To Do list and just giggle hysterically, knowing there's no way I can get through it all. The urge is strong to just give up and not bother. If I gave up some things, life would be so much easier. SO much easier.
But there's a kind of sheer bloodymindedness that comes into play. Both for martial arts and for writing. Neither of them are easy. Both will deal painful injuries to either body or heart.
So why do we do it?
Biologically, it's because humans are addicted to the endorphins our brain releases as a little reward for achieving goals. That little glow of pleasure when you type The End. That thrill when you finish your grading and get handed your next belt. That's your brain rewarding you for hard work.
It's a neat feedback loop evolution has given us to keep us motivated for survival.
Which is why reminding someone of that potential pleasure can be such a strong motivator for them to keep going when times are tough.
When we do our hajime classes in aikido, the first one is hard because you don't know what's coming. Two+ hours non-stop of gruelling training at top speed and full effort. Two hours of being punched, thrown, pummelled, and thrown again - over and over without ANY breaks at all.
Sometimes the only thing that keeps you going is the fear of looking weak before your sensei and your training partners. Or the sheer bloodymindedness I mentioned before. The "I will NOT let this beat me" type of thinking.
The second one is even harder because you DO know what's coming. And you choose to push yourself to the limit again. To persevere when others quit or don't even start. To not give up because you want to be proud of yourself and you love that rush of self-pride and confidence you get at the end. Knowing you've done something really difficult.
It's similar in writing. Often the first book or story is difficult, but we don't really know enough to understand how hard it could be. So we plough through, grit out teeth and struggle through to the end out of sheer bloodymindedness.
Then we're faced with the second book. Often now accompanied by terrible doubt because we've now realised how much we didn't know last time. And we're aware that people are waiting to see if we can pull off another good book, or if this one will suffer from badsequelitis.
So the trick is to remember the rush. Remember how great it felt to type The End. How excited you were when your first good beta-reader feedback came in and you worked out how to make the story even better. How ecstatic you were with your first good review.
Forget all the doubts and fears that you won't make it. You will. Whether it's your first or your second or your twelfth book. The rewards are there at the end. Persevere. Push through the pain and doubt and exhaustion.
It's worth it to share your vision with the world. Even if you change only one person's life a little bit. Even if ALL it does is make you proud of yourself. It's worth the effort.
I live in Australia - which tells you I have a sense of humour. We're a self-deprecating people, we Aussies. My aim is to, one day, vanish in a blinding flash of enlightenment. In the mean time, I'm doing my best to learn as many