From the desk of Hindsight is 20/20

A quick note of Dos and Don’ts for aspiring writers and self-publishers.*

Friends. I know that you have just been waiting with bated breath, palms sweaty, heart racing for The Fulcrum which I said I was going to publish on 19 February. I just know it.

And now … nothing.

Since I am currently somewhat time-poor in making good on that commitment, I can’t really spend hours on writing out reasons for why I didn’t make it. So instead, I offer you this as explanation: a short pre-blog to the blog about self-publishing.

It might offer some insights.

*Actually, just ‘don’ts’. It’s all just don’ts.

Don’t

  1. Choose to use American spelling without also adopting the “dialogue” style convention (UK/SA is ‘single quotes’) and then only remember to do that five days before you said you’d publish especially if you are working on a manuscript that is more than 200k words. This is a bad, bad, bad idea.
  2. Think you can do it yourself. You can’t. And related…
  3. Think this is cheap. The less money you have the longer this will take. The asshole fell out of my work income this year and so I was unable to use all the people I wanted to: the editors, the proofreaders, the book cover specialists, the Amazon specialists. I did not factor in the INTENSE extra work this would be. I don’t know why I didn’t factor that in. Hysterical blindness is my only excuse.
  4. Think that Amazon is ‘oh so easy lemon squeezey super breezey’. It’s not.
  5. Underestimate just how much editing you need, especially if it is your first novel. I apologise to my readers who read the The Fulcrum while they still had to trip over the thousand thousand ‘as ifs’, ‘settles’, ‘suddenlys’, ‘moments’, ‘seemed likes’ etc etc (I wish I was joking oh my GOD I realised too late the nervous, insecure word ticks of a first-time novelist FAR TOO LATE. ‘Just a quick double-check’ turned into ‘staring into the abyss of my own ineptitude’. Last week was great, guys.)

Okay that’s all I have time for because I am seriously SERIOUSLY loading this to Amazon today and I still have a TON of work to do on it. This doesn’t mean it will be available today, of course. Amazon might take another 24 to 48 to whateveritfeelslike hours to approve it.

So there you have it.

t

May I introduce to you…

I have to start off by saying that I’m very nervous about posting this and that what follows is self-indulgent chin-stroking about my first novel and therefore likely to interest almost no one. But it’s my blog and I’ll weeboo weeboo if I want to, so feel free to tap out now.

Picasso was once asked (apparently) what he does when faced with a blank canvas and if he ever felt intimidated by it. His response was to make a mark, any mark, and voila no longer a blank canvas. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like it, and so, since this is the first time I’m publicly discussing my first novel – and, frankly, intimidated as all hell by the thought – here’s my scribble to get it over and done with. I hope to write more thoughtful things about it later, but for now this is what I got.

Okay. Here we go.

My debut novel, The Fulcrum, will be loaded to Amazon on 19 February.

This is both a happy and sad occasion. Sad, because I’d hoped to find a publisher (SA) or an agent (US) but neither panned out. I learned a lot through that process and I’ll post a very helpful (I think) blog for South African newbie authors about that later.

But happy, because this six-year journey is finally coming to an end.

When I started writing The Fulcrum in 2016, I thought the hardest part would be to write it. This was not the case. I realised pretty quickly that, for me at least, the hardest part was all the emotional stuff around writing my first novel.

From the very beginning, I was faced with insecurities that overwhelmed me: This story is too big for me, I can’t write it (therefore I shouldn’t write it or even try). This story isn’t South African and who do I think I am to not acknowledge our present and past traumas? I’m a woman and women don’t write this sort of story (Utter bollocks, of course. Immediately, obviously, patently, laughably untrue, of course. But internalised sexism runs deep and this feeling surprised me.) No one wants to publish or agent this, so it must be worthless and I must be an idiot for pushing through. (In real-world terms, this might be the case; but I loved writing this story and am just happy that a platform exists where I might find a reader or two.)

And on and on.

It became very quickly clear that part of bringing this story to life depended not just on my and the story’s bull-headedness to get it out, but on the support of, and conversations with, my loved ones. Without them I’d be a miserable little heap of poo crying on a small pile of torn-up papers.

But now here I am on the other side of storytelling uncertainty and wailing (two years of pitching and almost 70 agent rejections is ROUGH on the ego my friends). How does the saying go? It always seems impossible until its done?

Anyway.

It’s funny, this business of writing a book no one asked for and no publisher wants, and still hoping that it finds its readers somewhere in the world without marketing or distribution. It’s borderline delusional.

Hmm.

Weirdly, just acknowledging that and writing it out feels comforting. Maybe the first step to first-time-fiction-author-trauma recovery is also acceptance. I am delusional and that’s okay.

Works for me.

Okay so that’s my Picasso blank canvas scribble for now. The worst of it is over. I’ll write more about what The Fulcrum is about and all that business later and hope you’ll stick around for it.

t
x

The pursuit of happiness

It’s a bumpy road, but it’s yours if you want it

Woman&Home, January 2022

In the south of Turkey, on the dusty rise of a hill, lie the stone ruins of an ancient piazza. The hefty limestone blocks that lie scattered between the scrub and olive trees are notable for just one remarkable feature: they’re inscribed with one of the only surviving accounts of Epicurus’ recipe for happiness.

Born on the Greek island of Samos in 341 BCE, Epicurus was a philosopher ahead of his time. Delighted by the physical senses, his motto was apparently ‘Pleasure is the beginning and goal of a happy life’ – a sentiment that today finds its home in the term ‘epicurean’ and all the luxury and hedonism that has come to be associated with it. But in truth, Epicurus’ recipe for living a happy life was premised on delights much simpler.

In The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton describes Epicurus’ happiness ‘acquisition list’ as this: a home of your own, close friendship, freedom from superiors and everyday political pettiness, and meaningful self-reflection into one’s anxieties and beliefs. Not to mention a modest diet of bread, vegetables and ‘a palm full of olives’. That’s it. Sure, material wealth beyond what is needed for your bread and olives is nice, but happiness is not dependent on feasts, mansions and super yachts.

I know in these times of economic and political turbulence it might be easy to dismiss these as the idealistic ramblings of a man born in what might appear to be much simpler times. But even now, more than 2 000 years later, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same. Studies keep confirming that those who live the happiest, healthiest lives are those who enjoy loving relationships and feel a sense of belonging in their community, who eat plant-based diets and partake in only moderate exercise (a point I’m particularly fond of).

Despite all this wisdom floating about, it’s taken me a long time to really internalise that happiness is not the wild euphoria of the chaotic high but the sustained satisfaction of living a life that you want to live, with the people you want to love, doing what brings you joy.

Maybe it’s taken me so long to understand this because there’s a level of complexity in arriving at this place of simplicity.

You see, I don’t think we’re set up for happiness when we pop into the world. Many of us aren’t given the tools to nurture loving relationships or even recognise them. Most of us grow up in a system that sets us at odds with ourselves and others, competing for attention, for work, for love, for our place in the sun. We’re distracted from self-reflection by the mania of self-improvement. We’re educated to graft ourselves to work and communities that deplete us instead of energising us. We’re told that more is always better, that happiness can be bought, that self-worth needs to be proved, that peace is something that lives elsewhere outside of ourselves.

Cutting through that tangle is hard work. There’s a kind of bullish commitment required to find and follow your own path to life satisfaction. I know it’s not fashionable to say this, but I believe that getting on that path and staying on it is a decision you make. Happiness is a choice. The choice, every day, sometimes many times a day, to take the actions necessary to build and support the life and relationships you want and need.

And making those choices is not always easy. That’s the paradox of happiness: sometimes to find it in yourself, you first need to claw your way through a whole lot of unhappy-making crud. You need to get your teeth bloody and your hands dirty with all that self-reflection Epicurus was on about before you can enjoy that palm full of olives with your chosen tribe.

The poet Mary Oliver once wrote, ‘We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness. So as much as I possibly could, I stayed where I was happy.’

I am selfish with my happiness now and, if I’m lucky enough to continue living in a world where that is a choice I can make, I’ll keep making it, one day – and one very moderate dose of exercise – at a time.

Feature photo by Lucio Patone on Unsplash
Photo of the wall from the University of Idaho

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Once upon a dream

Celebrations big and small mark the magic we make in the world

Woman&Home SA, December 2021

This is the fantasy: A lush garden party on a warm summer’s evening, with nothing but the full moon, fire pits and candles for light. Maybe some fairy lights and colourful lanterns strung between trees. Over there, in the amphitheatre of flowering Syringas, a dance floor where the DJ starts off slow with a Café del Mar-type playlist but will later bust out with hits from The Jackson Five and The Doors. For the hungry, tables laden with the finest dishes and servers in tuxedo-tutus offering silver trays of delicate appetisers and flutes of Champagne. There in the clearing, are fire jugglers and acrobats mesmerising the children; over there underneath the giant oak, a magician entrancing the easily fooled (me); and there on a stand in the middle of the pond, dancers performing a fantastical rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

All around me, my nearest and dearest (and their nearest and dearest because I simply don’t know enough people) mingling and laughing, dancing and feasting, lying about on cushions and throws of sumptuous materials telling stories and sharing grand ideas about life, the universe and their latest Netflix thrill. The scent of flowers fills the balmy air. Someone is blowing bubbles that drift up slowly to the night sky. After dessert, I call everyone to raise their glasses so that we might toast the most marvellous of all marvels: life and love and friendship. At midnight: fireworks so dazzling and extraordinary it feels like a tribute to Disney. And then more dancing until we all collapse in a contented heap under the stars or get whisked away in luxury automobiles to the luxury hotel rooms waiting for us.

This is a celebration I’ve long held as a one of my more magnanimous fantasies. And it could totally happen. All I’d need would be a few million Rands (flying some of those people back to the country is serious ching ching), the social connections to hit up my friends with the perfect house or hotel or just Kirstenbosch itself, and an event-planning committee I can trust to get the job done to my exacting specifications (ha!).

Oh, and the ability to control the weather. No biggie.

Sigh. A girl can dream. It is the holiday season after all, and if Christmas movies have taught me anything it’s that miracles can happen and dreams really do come true.

But even if a few million ZARs just fell into my lap now and I could be guaranteed a windless summer in Cape Town, the nuts and bolts of planning that sort of event would exhaust me before I’d even picked up my pen to make my first listicle. Organising big festivities isn’t for the faint-hearted. Just ask anyone who’s had to plan their own wedding or mega birthday party. Hell, I struggle with arranging family lunches.

And yet, I love a bit of a fuss. The marking of occasions both big and small is such an ancient part of humanity it’s impossible to ignore the impulse. The act of turning one’s attention to the joyful and recognising it as important is not only a way of elevating the moment but elevating our experience of ourselves in it. Like giving a child a gold star for writing the word ‘cat’, it can turn a simple win into the sublime.

Luckily for me, celebration doesn’t have to wait for big-ticket events to be valuable. There’s something transformative about it even for the most average day. It’s why I believe in always having a bottle of bubbly in the fridge and sparklers in the kitchen drawer. You never know what triumphs of the day will claim acknowledgement and what delights crave attention.

Still, although I love a low-stress celebration, I must admit that my fantasy party has a hold on my heart now that demands realisation. An event so astonishing and grand, so full of twinkle and magic, it’ll come close to articulating my love for my tribe.

So maybe I’ll set a goal for it this coming year, a manifestation of sorts that will see it all come together – the location, the events planner, the surprise trust fund and, of course, the real miracle: a guaranteed perfectly windless, perfectly cool Cape evening.

If dreams really do come true, why not this one?

Photo: Erwin Hesry

Hello 2022

I was just about to post my December column when I realised that, for my subscribed peeps (Hello all eight of you!), it would be kind of rude to just plough ahead without so much as a Happy New Year. Right? So here is a ‘Happy New Year!’ and a little something I want to share with you.

At the start of every year, my sister friend Sarah draws a card from one of her many decks (this one I think is an ‘Angel deck’ of some kind) for whoever is into that sort of thing. I am into that sort of thing and so she drew a card for me.

I got Quan Yin, the bodhisattva of great compassion.

Now, there are many reasons this rocked my world. For one, it speaks directly to a learning process I’m currently in of figuring out the fine interplay between control and choice, faith and release. That’s a story for another day. The one that I want to share here is about a gift I was given almost 20 years ago.

I was in Taiwan with Ulrich, my partner at the time, and we were exploring the villages and outlying suburbs around the city we lived in. Taiwan was, and still is I imagine, a place of great treasures hidden between the mundane and industrial.

This particular day, I was drawn to a shop selling wooden sculptures of gods and goddesses from the Confucian and Buddhist constellations. They were all of ebony and sandalwood, and the workshop, if I remember correctly, was attached to the store, and there were two women who leaned over a counter at the back, seemingly amused at the two waiguoren who’d wandered in like lost farts.

Most of the statues were huge, intricate, polished pieces, the kind that adorn temples and very rich people’s houses. But my eye caught the one small, raw wood piece I could pick up: a woman in flowing robes, holding a jar from which water flowed. There was only one flaw in the piece: a crack between the wave that rose up and the stream of water it was meeting.

And then the most astonishing thing happened. The woman told me I could have it. I blinked at her stupidly for a few moments and she had to point out the flaw and tell me in better English than I could manage Mandarin that it was mine no charge. Take it.

So I took it.

It was a beautiful piece. I loved my statue’s serene face and the curve of the wood so expertly carved. But for years it never crossed my mind to find out who she was and what she stood for. I only started caring after I threw her away.

Yes, friends. Like the ignorant fool I was, I threw away a beautiful and meaningful carving, gifted to me, because … well, I was going through some shit and the break in the wood felt like an ill omen. How could I have known in that chaotic space of my mind and heart that a small break in compassion could be fixed.

For years, after I started healing, I couldn’t find information on her. Every Google entry seemed to miss the mark of who my little statue had been. And then the card. Quan Yin.

I found this great collection of Quan Yin (Guanyin) images and descriptions at Buddha Weekly. Apparently, Quan Yin was eligible for buddahood, but chose to remain a bodhisattva to lead humans to enlightenment with great compassion and wisdom. Although her form is feminine in her most iconic portrayals, ‘she’ is not really ‘she’ or ‘he’ and takes on whatever shape is needed by the person calling on her.

I’m delighted that she’s found her way back to me, even though the 2D image pales in comparison to the beautiful statue I once had. It makes my heart squeeze a little with regret. But such is life, I guess. Some things you just have to let go with compassion. Thanks Q, your magic is already working.

As you head into 2022, let me extend my new old love of Quan Yin to you. The last two years have been rough, maybe this one will be better. But however it presents itself, may you experience it with great compassion and gentle forgiveness.

x

(PS The pics of my statue on a kitchen table were taken by Ulrich for a photography course he was doing, hence the composition. I still smoked! A lot!)