1000words: An Interview with Cathy Lennon

1000wordsToday, I’m welcoming Cathy Lennon to my blog. Cathy is a writer of fabulous fiction and was recently announced the winner of this year’s National Flash-Fiction Day Micro-Fiction Competition. At 1000words, we have published not one, not two, but three of her stories: A Useful Facility in the North, Segments and A Time for Giving. Don’t rush off to read them just yet, though. Stay a while and find out what Cathy has to say about writing flash-fiction and her 1000words experience.

Thanks, Cathy, for agreeing to be interviewed. What prompted you to submit your flash-fictions to 1000words?

I discovered 1000 words not long after I joined twitter. I enjoyed reading other people’s work and then one day there was an invitation to submit to a contest. There was an image of a wall covered in graffiti, somewhere hot and deserted. I immediately saw my character Faisal, pining for the familiarity of his old school yard and wrote ‘Segments’ quite quickly. I was really thrilled when it was published!

We’ve published several of your stories at 1000words. Can you tell us how you get from your chosen images to your final flash-fictions?

Segments
Image by nickolouse. Some Rights Reserved.

I still find it hard to pin the creative process down. I almost prefer not to think about it. Some of my most appreciated work has been written quickly. Other pieces I’ve laboured over and got nowhere with. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I do love it, though, when you get totally absorbed in painting a tiny portrait on a grain of rice, which is what flash is to me.

Other than images, what things inspire your stories?

I’m an information junkie. I love odd facts and random trivia. If I come across something that makes me think ‘how interesting!’ I’ll write it down in one of my journals. If I’m looking for inspiration, a quick flick through will often provide me with a jumping off point. Other times it’ll be an overheard remark or a desire to capture a particular scene or feeling.

Which writers (or other creatives) have inspired you?

Twitter has been an eye-opener. I’ve discovered people whose work I really like and whose attitude to the writing process has really encouraged me. I’d include in that lots of flash fiction writers – Calum Kerr, Tania Hershman, Nik Perring and many others. The support and friendship from other writers has been brilliant. I really like the work and writing ethic of Angela Readman. I’ll be looking out for her short story collection this year.

What is it you like about reading and writing flash-fiction?

It’s quite ‘freeing’. It distils and lingers, a bit like poetry, and it can be a great outlet for the surreal and off kilter. It stands in its own right as something worthwhile to read or write and it can also be an icebreaker, pushing the blocks of writing brain-freeze out of the way!

What tips would you give to aspiring flash-fiction writers?

Hmm. Giving tips. A friend once said ‘it seems to me that far too many people have too much to say for themselves.’ I thought that was quite wise. We all just struggle along in our own way doing our own thing. I think you can get quite paralyzed sometimes, with all the writing tips out there!

Thanks again for agreeing to be interviewed. Before you go, though, is there anything else you’d like us to know?

Cathy LennonAt the moment I plan to keep on doing what I’m doing. My main focus is on learning and improving – and enjoying. I spent a lot of time trying to force myself to write certain things in certain ways and the end result was that I wasn’t happy. I reckon I’m in for a long haul, but that’s absolutely fine.

You can read Cathy’s stories here, here and here. You can also find her tweeting on Twitter as @clenpen.

I’m Not Shy

IntrovertThe weight loss programme my doctor referred me to last year, involved several sessions with a Motivation and Change Therapist, and during one of those sessions, we talked about how I often find social situations difficult.

I said to her, ‘The thing is, you can put me on a stage in front of hundreds of people, and I will happily sing or speak. You can stand me at the front of a classroom or church, and I will happily teach. But if you were to put me in a room with a handful of people I don’t know and ask me to talk to them, I’d just want to run for the hills. I find that kind of thing really, really, really hard work.’

And her response was, ‘You sound like a confident introvert.’

‘Ooh,’ I thought. ‘A confident introvert? That sounds interesting. I must find out more.’

So I did, and one of the things I found out is that being an introvert is not the same as being shy. Whereas introverts enjoy time alone, people who are shy don’t actually want to be alone; they just choose to be alone because they’re afraid of interaction. Whilst therapy might help a shy person become less shy, it isn’t going to fix introversion because introversion isn’t something that needs fixing. It’s a way of being. Introverts are not antisocial, and they’re not friendless loners who lack social skills. They simply have a different set of needs and preferences to extroverts. For example, introverts:

  • prefer fewer, closer friendships to having lots and lots of friends,
  • need loads of personal space,
  • need time to recharge their batteries after social interaction,
  • prefer to be on the sidelines at parties and events,
  • prefer individual activities, such as reading and writing
  • like to hang back and familiarise themselves with something before joining in,
  • often have two distinct persona: a public one and a private one,
  • avoid talking about their achievements and underplay their gifts and talents,
  • dislike smalltalk and prefer ‘meaningful’ discussions,
  • hate interruption,
  • need lots of thinking and reflecting time,
  • prefer to express themselves through writing rather than speech,
  • pause a lot and can have word-finding problems when speaking,
  • become irritable if they have to spend lots of time with lots of people,
  • feel drained even when they’ve enjoyed social interaction, and
  • can find it difficult to share their feelings.

But while introversion may look like shyness (or even weakness) on the outside, it certainly has its strengths. Introverts:

  • are excellent listeners,
  • are deep thinkers and reflectors,
  • are creative,
  • are focused and good at concentrating for long periods of time,
  • like to explore subjects deeply and thoroughly,
  • are very aware of their inner worlds – their thoughts, ideas, beliefs and feelings, and
  • can be very observant.

This is me to a T. But what does it all mean? It means that some of my ‘weaknesses’ are actually strengths. It means I don’t need to feel that daydreaming is a waste of time. It means I don’t need to feel that I’m being rude because I would rather work on my own than in a group, or feel stupid because I can’t rustle up an instantaneous opinion during a discussion, or feel selfish because I need to leave a social situation because I’m craving personal space. It means that feeling irritable is a natural response to interruption and over-stimulation. It means it’s okay for me to say no to something when it feels like doing it would be too much. It means it’s okay for me to take time out in order to recharge my batteries. It means I don’t need fixing. I’m okay as I am.

And if all this still sounds like weakness, then have a watch of this: The Power of Introverts, a TEDtalk by Susan Cain.

Deep Breaths

Heath PondToday is the last proper day of the Easter Holidays. Tomorrow, Matt goes back to work, and Sam goes back to school. It’ll be just Sophie and me until she goes back on Wednesday.

The temperature in our house is starting to rise. All the usual going-back-to-school jobs still need doing – the ironing of uniforms, the reconstructing of PE kits, the restocking of pencil cases – and little Sophie is growing more and more anxious. She used to love school, but now she finds every day a real trial. We’re not sure how or why it started, but she worries so much about school that we’ve had to seek help from the pastoral care worker and the local Children and Adolescents Mental Health Service (CAMHS) team.

Right now, she’s happily drawing pictures of farm animals and writing accompanying poems. This afternoon, she seemed quite content as she rode her bike around our local lake and slid down the slide at the playground. This morning, she enjoyed pootling around town with us, and in between all that she’s been merrily playing Minecraft and watching TV. But … every so often she wanders over to me, climbs on my lap and snuggles, and I can feel the tension in her little body and see the anxiety in her eyes. When she’s distracted from the thought of school, she’s okay, but when she stops and rests, she starts to think about what it will be like and that’s when the worry takes hold.

Tomorrow will be a challenging day. There’ll be plenty for us to do – arts and crafts, bike rides to the park, bus rides into town, cooking, reading, writing, board games – but with Matt and Sam gone, I’ll have to occupy her on my own, and it’s been a while since I had to put that much effort into childcare. That probably sounds awful, but as the children have grown older, I’ve definitely become used to them being more independent! Time to dig deep and lean …

#atozchallenge: R is for Retiring

5367644607_cd7b43840b_zI’m retiring from the AtoZChallenge. This is a decision based upon the fact that I’ve just looked at the topics I intended to cover in my remaining posts and realised that I’ve already covered them. I’ve accomplished what I set out to do here. I’ve talked about me and my mental health – the good times, the bad times, the things that help, the things that hinder. To post any more now would be pointless repetition.

More importantly, this decision is also based upon my desire to beat the all-or-nothing attitude that has plagued me over the last few years. I’ve lost count of the number of wagons I’ve watched disappear over the horizon because I’ve fallen off and not had the strength to chase after them and jump back on. This all-or-nothing attitude was part of the reason I put on so much weight after I had depression; I’d start a diet, lose a stone, fall off the plan, give up and then put on more weight than I’d lost. In those days, I hadn’t recovered the wherewithal to be able to let go and move on.

Leaving things unfinished like this makes me itch, but finishing something just for the sake of it, finishing something that is no longer of benefit, is not a good use of my time or energy. I need to be comfortable with putting down the unfinished. I need be comfortable with leaving things incomplete and imperfect. I need to be able to take a day off an eating plan and start afresh the next without feeling like I’ve ruined all my previous efforts. I need to be able to miss a day in my ‘photo a day’ journal without having to go back and fake a picture just so there aren’t any gaps in the calendar. I need to be able to leave an AtoZChallenge at R without having to delete the whole series because it’s incomplete.

Leaving things here is not a failure. It is a victory.

Right, now that’s out of the way, I’m off to have a good scratch …

Linkidinks:

An explanation of my AtoZChallenge theme can be found at Me and My Mental Health – It’s Time to Talk.

#atozchallenge: Q is for Quiet

It is never quiet where I am.

Tinnitus is any sound a person can hear that’s generated inside the body rather than outside. In other words, my ears and my brain hear noises that aren’t really there. I first noticed it in my late teens as a fax-machine-like beeping in my left ear. I’d only hear it late at night, when I was falling asleep, and it didn’t really bother me. Looking back it was probably caused by too many hours spent listening to loud music on my personal stereo and standing too near the speakers at gigs.

A few years ago, though, it got worse. I’d had a nasty cold which left me all bunged up, and I couldn’t hear properly out of either ear. I thought my hearing would improve after the cold got better, but it didn’t. For weeks, I felt as if I were under water. I had to really concentrate on conversations, and busy places made my head spin. Eventually, I went to the doctor complaining of headaches, hearing loss and an increase in the volume of my tinnitus. It sounded as if I were sitting next to a rushing river and surrounded by people blowing whistles and ringing bells. My doctor, bless him, told me it could be caused by one of two things: a virus or a brain tumor. Yes! Those were his exact words. Anyway, he referred me to the ENT department at our local hospital who saw me fairly promptly and who happily told me, after tickling my face with cotton wool and testing my hearing in an anechoic chamber, that they were satisfied it was a virus and that my hearing should return in time.

Well, time proved them right about it not being a brain tumor! And my hearing did come back after a few months. But, my tinnitus remains the same. It’s still there, rushing, whistling and ringing. All. The. Time. But I’ve learned to live with it.

Running WaterI saw a tinnitus therapist for a while. She was brilliant. She gave me a tinnitus mask which is a little devise you stick in your ear. It plays white noise to you and trains your brain to ignore the sound and others similar to it. I also had to avoid being anywhere silent. I had to have sound around me at all times – running water, passing cars, a whirring fan, a running washing machine, a radio on low in the background – to give my brain something else to focus on, so it could learn to ignore the noises in my head. Which it did. Most of the time, I don’t notice it. It’s as if my brain has switched to a different channel, but I can switch back if I want to, and if I do, it’s there.

The only time it’s a problem is if I have a cold and my head gets bunged up. Then the tinnitus makes itself known. Loudly! Sometimes this stops me sleeping, which, as I’ve said before, can trigger my anxiety. My brain won’t switch channel, and it won’t switch off. If this happens, I have to distract my mind with stories and employ my other anti-insomnia tricks. I’ve also got a set of pillow-speakers and a play list of white noise and nature sounds on iTunes that I can listen to to help re-tune my brain. As well as that, I consume decongestants by the tonne!

Linkidinks:

An explanation of my AtoZChallenge theme can be found at Me and My Mental Health – It’s Time to Talk.

#atozchallenge: P is for Photography

A photo taken by my sister of me and my brother taking photos. We all caught the photography bug from our dad!

I caught the photography bug from my dad. One of my earliest memories is of playing with a light meter and being mesmerized by lumpy-bumpy light-detecting bit. I’ve always had a camera, first a cheapie 110, then a couple of cheapie 35mm’s, then a digital compact and now a DSLR and an iPhone. Until I took a course in photography a few years ago, I wasn’t actually very good at it, but now that I’ve learned about the art of composition and the importance of lighting and point of view etc, I can turn out a half-decent picture.

Photography isn’t just about the end product, though, the final picture. For me, photography is about the moment, about stopping and looking – really looking – and then capturing something more than an image; it’s about capturing a memory.

PenguinMy memory is rubbish. I only have a few childhood memories and those are fading. I’ve forgotten so much, but photography helps me to remember. For the last year, I’ve been taking a photo every day and publishing it on blipfoto. It’s been a way to record the good things that happen, not just for me, for my children as well. One of our favourite things to do is snuggle up in bed and look through our photo albums. The kids love seeing themselves as babies and hearing about all the silly things they did, the cute little words they made up. Sophie’s early years are a blur to me – the years I had depression – but sitting there with her and laughing at the pictures in her album reminds me that it wasn’t all bad; there were some wonderful moments too.

Wonderful MomentsLinkidinks:

An explanation of my AtoZChallenge theme can be found at Me and My Mental Health – It’s Time to Talk.

#atozchallenge: O is for Opinions

Opinions.

I have them.

For a long time though I didn’t. Or rather, I did have them, but I couldn’t trust them. Depression, anxiety and losing confidence often go hand in hand. They did for me. I’d always been confident, but once depression hit, my self-esteem hit rock bottom. I found it hard to make decisions, to hold conversations, to stand up for myself, to put across my point of view. I doubted myself all the time with regard to pretty much everything. It’s taken a long while to recover from having my judgement corroded. Even now, I sometimes find myself wondering if I’m just being irrational. Its been hard to trust my thoughts and feelings again, but there have been a few things that have helped (and still help) me in this regard:

  • Journaling – Putting my thoughts, feelings down on paper, helps me keep them in perspective. For me, journaling is a form of prayer. It’s a way to hand things over to God, to share them, to ask for help and then move on. Once written down, my thoughts are no longer swirling around my head, getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
  • Honesty – I have a codeword that I use when I’m feeling irrational or down. All I have to do is say it to Matt and he knows that I need a little extra support, a little extra space, a little extra leeway. (Somber Scribbler wrote an excellent post about loving someone with depression. It’s well worth a read.)
  • Reminders – It’s easy to forget the things I’ve got right, the things I’ve done well, so having reminders around me is really useful: photographs I’ve taken, stories I’ve written, scrapbooks of adventures, letters of encouragement, thank you cards, two beautiful children …
  • Refocusing – It’s easier to focus on the bad stuff than on the good stuff, but I’ve learned to push away negative thoughts and turn to positive ones instead. I actually have a mental broom with which I sweep negative thoughts and memories from my mind.
  • Getting out and about – When my self-esteem is low, the last thing I want to do is mingle, but leaving the house and being with people actually helps. Volunteering at school and church makes me feel useful and helps me see what I’m good at.
  • Friendship – I have some lovely friends, and the fact that they seem to like me makes me feel better about myself.
  • Studying – Learning new things shows me that I’m still capable and not a washed up waste of space!

ScupperedLinkidinks:

An explanation of my AtoZChallenge theme can be found at Me and My Mental Health – It’s Time to Talk.

#atozchallenge: N is for Natalie

Me
Image by Heather Stanley (c)

I’ve suffered from depression. I’ve suffered from anxiety. And the shadows they have cast have been long and cold. But, I am more than my mental health problems. This is easy to forget when the black dog is bounding around the house, so I’ve decided to use today’s post as a record of all the other things … the good things … that I am.

I am Natalie.

And, in no particular order …

I am also the wife of the son of a preacher man, the mother of two amazing children, my parents’ daughter*, a daughter-in-law, a sister, a sister-in-law, an auntie, a niece, a graduate, a lapsed Biochemist, a post-postgraduate, an ex-science teacher, a published writer, an editor and publisher, a happily-amateur photographer, a youth and children’s worker, a toddler group leader, a singer, a ukulele player, a follower of Jesus, a speaker, a walker, a listener, a friend, a volunteer, an introvert, a storyteller, a tutor, a mentor, a perpetual student, a parent helper, the best cook in the world (according to my kids), an excellent driver (most of the time), a teenager at heart, a creative, a reader, a thinker, a dreamer, a story scavenger, a survivor.

The photo I’ve picked for today’s post is of me and my daughter. It was taken about 8 years ago, just before I started my descent into depression. Once upon a time, I found it hard to look at because it reminded me of all the time and experiences my family and I missed out on while I was ill, and it reminded me of the woman I had once been – strong, confident, capable, happy. But now, when I look at it, I only feel the tiniest twinge of sadness. Now, she doesn’t seem so different from the woman I am today.

(*I am my father’s daughter. I inherited my analytical mind and my keen sense of justice from him. I am also my mother’s daughter. I inherited my love of words and my capacity for volunteer work from her.)

Linkidinks:

An explanation of my AtoZChallenge theme can be found at Me and My Mental Health – It’s Time to Talk.

#atozchallenge: M is for (Wo)Mentoring

WoMen1
All WoMentoring images by Sally Jane Thompson

Today, I’m taking a break from blogging about mental health. Instead, I’m going to let you know about a new support scheme for women writers called The WoMentoring Project.

So, what is The WoMentoring Project about?

The WoMentoring Project exists to offer free mentoring by professional literary women to up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities.

The mission of The WoMentoring Project is simply to introduce successful literary women to other women writers at the beginning of their careers who would benefit from some insight, knowledge and support. The hope is that we’ll see new, talented and diverse female voices emerging as a result of time and guidance received from our mentors.

Each mentor selects their own mentee and it is at their discretion how little or much time they donate. We have no budget; it’s a completely free initiative and every aspect of the project – from the project management to the website design to the PR support – is being volunteered by a collective of female literary professionals. Quite simply this is about exceptional women supporting exceptional women. Welcome to The WoMentoring Project.

But, why do we need it?

WoMentoringIllo2WebLike many great (and not so great) ideas The WoMentoring Project came about via a conversation on Twitter. While discussing the current lack of peer mentoring and the prohibitive expense for many of professional mentoring we asked our followers – largely writers, editors and agents – who would be willing to donate a few hours of their time to another woman just starting out. The response was overwhelming – within two hours we had over sixty volunteer mentors.

The WoMentoring Project is managed by novelist Kerry Hudson and all of our mentors are all professional writers, editors or literary agents. Many of us received unofficial or official mentoring ourselves which helped us get ahead and the emphasis is on ‘paying forward’ some of the support we’ve been given.

In an industry where male writers are still reviewed and paid more than their female counterparts in the UK, we wanted to balance the playing field. Likewise, we want to give female voices that would otherwise find it hard to be heard, a greater opportunity of reaching their true potential.

So, how do I apply?

WoMentoringIllo3WebIn an ideal world we would offer a mentor to every writer who needed and wanted one. Of course this isn’t possible so instead we’ve tried to ensure the application process is accessible while also ensuring that out mentors have enough information with which to make their selection.

Applicant mentees will submit a 1000 word writing sample and a 500 word statement about why they would benefit from free mentoring. All applications will be in application to a specific mentor and mentees can only apply for one mentor at a time.

 

Why are your mentors getting involved?

WoMentoringIllo1CropWeb“The reason I’m doing this is simple: mentoring can mean the difference between getting published and getting lost in the crowd. It can help a good writer become a brilliant one. But till now, opportunities for low-income writers to be mentored were few and far between. This initiative redresses the balance; I’m utterly delighted to be part of the project.” Shelley Harris, author of Jubilee

“I have only achieved the success I have with the help of others, and now I am keen to pass on that help. I particularly want to reach out to those who don’t have the privileges of wealth, status or existing contacts, but who have so much to gain and to give.” Marie Phillips, author Gods Behaving Badly

“I’m so pleased to be involved in the WoMentoring Project, and I can’t wait to meet my mentee. I know from my own authors how isolating an experience writing can often be, especially when you’re just starting out, and so I really wanted to be involved. I hope that knowing that there is someone on your side in those early days will give writers courage and confidence in their work.” Alison Hennessy, Senior Editor at Harvill Secker

“The WoMentoring project is the kind of opportunity I would have relished when writing my first novel. It’s founded in the spirit of paying it forward, and I’ll take real pride in sharing whatever experience I’ve gained with a mentee. I’ve benefited from the advice and encouragement of some truly inspirational writers, the right voice cheering you on can make all the difference when you’re in your solitary writing bubble. The formality of the mentoring arrangement also gives a sense of responsibility and focus – something that’s invaluable when you’re lost in the sprawl of a work-in-progress – and it’s beneficial to mentors too.” Amylia Hall, author of The Book of Summers

“My career as an editor has been immeasurably enriched by working with inspiring women writers, yet the world of publishing would have been inaccessible to me without the time and support I was given when first starting out.  The WoMentoring Project is a wonderful, necessary thing and I’m very proud to be taking part in it.” Francesca Main, Editorial Director, Picador
 
“I wanted to get involved with this project because I’d like to help authors feel that whoever they are, and wherever they come from, they have a right to be heard.” Jo Unwin of the Jo Unwin Literary Agency

So, if you’re a women writer who feels you would benefit from free mentoring by a professional literary women, visit The WoMentoring Project to find out more! You can also follow them on Twitter at @WoMentoringP.

#atozchallenge: L is for Laughter

Heart of StoneThe good times … and the bad …

They say that laughter is the best medicine, but for me, for a while, citalopram was the best medicine. My doctor prescribed it for me for six months in order to get me going on the road to recovery. When I first started taking it, I was strung out. It’s a cliche, but it’s also the perfect way to describe how I was feeling. I was a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights, a deer caught in a hunter’s cross-hairs. My waking hours were spent in an anxious and obsessive blur. My sleeping hours were short and fractured. My body and brain were on constant high alert. The citalopram fixed all that – by numbing me.

It wasn’t until I emerged on the other side that I realised that as well as no longer feeling anxious and depressed, I’d also stopped laughing. One night, not long after I’d weened myself off the medication, Matt and I were watching television. I can’t remember what show it was, but I know it was a comedy. And I laughed at it. I remember Matt turning to me and saying something along the lines of, ‘That’s the first time you’ve laughed in about a year.’ It was true. And it felt good. I knew then that I was definitely on the mend. I started laughing again. I started caring again. I started picking up all the things I’d put down: looking after my body, looking after the house, reading, thinking, dreaming.

The antidepressants switched off everything – the bad feelings and the good. But that’s what I needed back then when everything was so extreme. I needed to feel nothing, to switch off my brain and calm my body, to allow myself the time and space to heal.

I’ve said before that it’s been a long and bumpy journey. On occasion it’s been two steps forward, one step (or more) back, but I’ve never been so depressed or anxious that I’ve needed to take medication again. These days I’d rather be able to laugh, even if it means also feeling down sometimes. Having said that, if things ever become extreme again, I hope I’ll not hesitate to go back to my doctor and ask for medical help once more.

And, rather than leave you on a somewhat dour note, here’s a video of the hilarious Milton Jones to leave you with a laugh instead!

Linkidinks:

An explanation of my AtoZChallenge theme can be found at Me and My Mental Health – It’s Time to Talk.