I am delighted to pick up this Blog Tour baton, and wallow in the luxury of gazing at my writing navel! My Yangon friend, fellow blogger, member of our cosy writing group and owner of 2 Large and Friendly Dogs, Cliff Lonsdale introduced this idea to me recently, when he decided to pick up the challenge. He threw the blog tour gauntlet at my feet and today it is my turn to pick up the baton and run a little with it.
It feels luxurious and a little wicked to sit back, and reflect on my writing! I use my writing as a reflective process or tool so I feel as I am opening up the workings of something I do not truly understand. A bit like physics, I know it is there and it guides me through the world but how does it work? Of that I am not sure, neither am I convinced that I am able to understand.
At this stage of so-called maturity, I realise that I am a butterfly in many areas of my life. I flit around, my attention snatched by an image or a random thought from nowhere, or something amusing which I just have to stop in mid-sentence to share. I find my thoughts in a very different place to where I started out from. I was in the middle of a serious conversation yesterday, when I spotted a motorbike go past the window of my Bangkok hotel. Standing behind the driver, as some kind of pillion passenger was a beefy little dog quite happily travelling along Sukhumvit amidst lines of traffic and fumes, somehow maintaining his balance. I had to break my sentence and share this moment or it would have been lost forever. I had darted away from one train of thought and conversation, and off instantly into another.
I am captivated by the simplest and seemingly everyday things in this life. I can spend long moments watching with fascination as a line of ants transports a crumb many times larger than each of them across the path, gazing at the monsoon rains pounding down and creating magical lakes on the grass and leaving little rainbow pools in the upturned leaves many hours later. I can sit at night and listen while the tokay gecko gives out his distinctive call and the frogs clamour to shout the loudest. I can spend a great deal of time, watching butterflies flit around the bushes in the garden, darting from leaf to leaf, from flower to flower and then onto another bush as something calls them onwards. My attention is caught by these prompts, and I find myself snatched into a different moment.
Maybe I was a butterfly in a previous life and I have kept my butterfly approach to my world. Maybe I will be a butterfly next time round? Maybe I am a butterfly now, in human guise? A butterfly that writes?
I have always wanted to write, especially a book with proper pages and a cover I cherish. I remember when I was a young child, I started my first attempt at a book. I must have been was inspired by the CS Lewis books about Narnia as I realised that the paragraphs I had created, revealed some considerable likeness to the Narnia tales, even down to the name of the imaginary land. What a good job I realised that at the tender age of 11. I kept this fantasy to myself after that, clearly unable to produce anything resembling originality. Much later, I remember reading Francoise Sagan’s novel “Bonjour la tristesse”, and being stunned that the written word could have such an effect on my emotions. I wanted to be able to do that. I tried writing again a few years later, and on one occasion managed to put some words on paper. I must have produced a couple of paragraphs with a bland, insipid main character based on all sorts of idealistic and mildly feminist aspirations. Another non-starter.
For many years, the ideas and dreams continued to flourish but nothing actually moved forward, and I did little about it apart from keeping journals of time travelling and overseas.
Then something rather strange happened. I was on holiday in Thailand ten years ago, and decided to consult an astrologer as I was pretty curious. I veer between sceptical and believer and was probably not the most cooperative person to give a reading to. However, I was considerably surprised and impressed by the amount of information the astrologer gave. Some things would be a fairly safe guess, but he also said some things which were not really possible to guess which were very specific and interesting. After the consultation was finished he asked if there was anything specific I wanted to know, and I asked a couple of questions, but then he said “another thing – one day your name will be famous by writing”. I didn’t understand what he meant at first, and asked him to clarify. He said that one day I would write a book which would make name well known.
Those words had a great effect on me. I picked up the dream again, and bought a laptop. I was living in Nepal at the time, and surrounded by inspiration. To my surprise, these words took the shape of poetry and by the time I left Nepal in 2005 I had a healthy little portfolio of poetry with me. The astrologer had re-ignited that light in me, and quite deliberately I wrote.
My next step forward, came in April 2007 when I closed my eyes, took a very deep breath and stepped into a space I had been longing to have the courage to move into. I started blogging. I was trembling as I went through the steps to start my relationship with “blogspot”, looking over the Andaman sea as the light faded, colour bled from the sky and a series of pinks, purples, indigo and shades of darker blue slowly disappeared under the cloak of the night sky. I knew I had to keep the momentum and get this new being online yet I did not have a name for the blog. I had no idea what to call this space where I would bare my writing soul. It must have taken a couple of hours to come with “Feisty Blue Gecko” but I knew it was me! Feisty is a label a few previous bosses have called me, and I like it! I like the thought of having spirit and principles as that is what the term says to me. If there is only one word permitted on my tombstone or obituary, then I would be happy to rest if that word were “feisty”. Blue is easy – the same Thai astrologer told me that my most auspicious colour was blue. This instantly resonated – I choose blues in all manner of ways, from fabrics, clothes, images, paint. I love blue and quite how the astrologer knew, is another mystery as I was wearing burning desert colours that day of vibrant orange and reds. And gecko was also an obvious one. Since a child I have had a fascination with lizards though in Scotland, you can imagine that I did not see so many. I remember catching one once, and making it a wonderful home in a wooden box, furbished with grasses, stones and a dish of water. I named him (I was only around 9 years old, remember) “Swift Stone” because of his rapid movement and camouflage. I never saw him again, and I am not convinced that he even made it into his carefully designed home. Moving to Asia meant a proliferation of lizards and geckos and I can never tire of them darting across the ceiling, chirruping and as a bonus, scoffing little beasties and bugs that might otherwise trouble me. So that is the “why” of the moniker Feisty Blue Gecko, and we have been a team now for approaching 7 years! Feisty Blue Gecko was the space where I shared observations and experiences through my time in India and Sri Lanka, focusing particularly on my own personal take on this and not in any way venturing into analysis or controversy. That was not my kind of space.
When I moved to Myanmar, blogspot was not accessible in those days, so there was a blogging silence for a while until I discovered that WordPress was, for some reason, open and doing business. I migrated over and set up a new space, although said very little. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, the context was very sensitive and so I was keen not to give any cause for concern so my posts were few and gentle. The second reason is that only weeks after arriving in Myanmar I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And that pushed me over into a very new world. I quickly knew that writing and specifically, blogging would be one of the ways I would work my way forward and this very space, blog space No 3 was set up for this very particular experience. This was my breast cancer blog, and I was in a new universe.
Initially I purged my head of the detail of treatments by writing it down. It was a way of keeping friends and family updated about what was happening, but I did not realise that it provided an insight to my thoughts and emotions and not just the bare facts. It was a way of recording what was happening as I knew that I would forget detail and how I felt. And it quickly became a way of communicating with others all around the globe, who were in a very similar situation to the one I had unexpectedly found myself in. There was a whole world of breast cancer bloggers out there!
It is now over four years since I set up that new space, and in that time both myself and the blog have evolved in ways I would not have imagined. Now my strapline really says it all. I see my blog very much as the Life and work of a Scottish woman in Asia – with the added complication of Breast Cancer thrown into the mix!
And one of the most important parts of that life is that writing plays a very serious part in it. Since arriving in Yangon, I have become part of a writing group here, which has provided a nurturing place for me to learn and enabling me to experiment and stretch my writing in ways I could never have imagined.
So this opportunity to step back and explore my writing self is very welcome, even if it might feel uncomfortably revealing.
Now that my I have limbered up a little, let’s have a look at those questions of the Blog Tour…..
1) What am I working on?
What am I not working on? I am a butterfly in so many areas of my life, but none is more apparent than in my writing. I am surrounded by inspiration and ideas swamp my mind, so many fading from my memory before they have the chance to take shape and grow. I have notebooks with Morning Pages, a journal, an “ideas” jotter and even a ”things I must jot down right now as I will forget it for sure” cute little notebook. We have some writing group assignments, prompts and experiments. I love to write the occasional guest blog for others. I have been playing with flash fiction and love it! My greatest investment in terms of writing time would surely be devoted to the blog. I post most weeks, sometimes more if there is something especially stirring. And occasionally I skip a week if other responsibilities and commitments have to compete the blog loses out.
This year I made a “writing plan” and set out some concrete things I want to have in place, and some steps towards achieving these. The main “big” projects are:
A memoir. Original, huh? And a cancer memoir it is too. But, this is a kind of expat, tropical cancer memoir and I hope that will make it a little different.
A collection. I have a heap of bits and pieces which have taken shape as I have flitted around Asia. I have some poetry, some short stories and some snippets which I am working to shape. I see the result as some kind of collection which together will give a sense of how life in this part of the world for someone with blue eyes, living amongst mainly brown eyed people.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
My work has aspects in common with many others. The subjects I write about, for example are not unique to me – breast cancer, living in Yangon, visiting interesting places and meeting cool folks. I do have a little bit of a “niche” however, in that expat breast cancer is more rare as a blog and writing topic. Rare but not desirable, I hasten to add!
However, the main distinguishing feature of my writing is that it comes out of my head, is formed by my own slant on the universe, and frequently is based on the tiniest of seemingly insignificant actions or observations, seen or experienced either only by me, or in my own peculiar way. Often those moments are the catalyst for a great deal more thought, and ideas come from somewhere I did not existed. The poetry I wrote in Nepal was not deep and elusive but very much a way of capturing often everyday details which otherwise would rapidly melt and disappear. This is an example – I was travelling in southern Nepal and spotted a boy with a bike trying to catch chickens……… this is how it developed. (Babu is a term for son or boy, and amaa is Nepali for mother)
Babu and the chickens
go for chickens,
we need chickens to celebrate
ten fat healthy chickens
take the bike
yes that one
but you are big now
go and get the chickens
nice lively clucking ones
I got the chickens
I took the bike
it was so big
I couldn’t reach the seat
I got to the shop
slipping my little short legs
through the bars
trying to pedal
I got the chickens
ten big clucking chickens
nice fat ones to celebrate
In each hand
I had five chickens
clutching their claws
and the handlebars
their heads swinging as I pedalled
And the big big bike
wobbling all over the road
all the time, I was
tightly clutching the chickens
But amaa I slipped
the bike fell over
I fell over
and the chickens jumped
out of my hands
in all directions.
I ran to gather up the chickens
in the road
I got the chickens
only seven chickens
and the bike is broken
I’m sorry amaa
please don’t cry amaa
we have to celebrate
3) Why do I write what I do?
I write what I do for a number of reasons.
- I write to capture an experience, or a tiny detail, or a particular moment which I want to remember.
- I write to develop an idea, not sure where it might be going but allowing creativity and inspiration take me somewhere unexpected.
- Often I write simply so that I don’t forget.
- I write because I want to share things I see and experience, the tiny things which are so significant but so easily lost.
- I write because I find it healing and cathartic. When something is troubling me, I find that writing with abandon, letting the worry or pain be drawn from my mind, exorcising that which is causing my anguish. I know that these words will stay on the written page, and that I will probably never look at them again, but they have been removed from the destructive process going on in my mind.
- I particularly found that I have written my way through the trauma of diagnosis, the stresses of subsequent scares and more recently the raw grief of losing my father.
- I write because I feel I have something different to say.
- I write because I have some simply brilliant ideas, which no one has ever thought of and no one ever will ;)
- And of course, I write because I want to be published…….. Well, don’t we all?
4) How does my writing process work?
We’re back to the butterfly. My writing process flits about in spare moments around full time work and other commitments and tends to vary depending on the genre.
However, broadly there tends to be a prompt first of all, that spark of an idea. I might see something which causes me to smile, to wrinkle my eyebrow in puzzlement or a random thought which appears and then takes a life of its own.
From the idea or prompt, I often write in my head. I work and rework phrases and take an idea on a journey, swept along on beautiful prose. I try and capture those wonderful rich words, and write them down but somehow they have too often disappeared and I struggle to retrieve them.
I find that many ideas and thoughts come while I am swimming. As I plough up and down the pool, head above the water in case I miss anything, I can form the most original ideas, and express them in artful sentences. But there is no pen to hand when in a swimming pool and as I climb out of the water, those precious creations drain away.
I do find though that my writing process varies according to the different pieces I write, along with the mood or tone of that writing. I reflect a great deal and will mull over whatever it is that is playing on my mind until the shape appears. By the time I set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the idea is already quite advanced. I especially love paper, I love the feel of a pen in my hand and as far as practical write in longhand. Having said that, I am extremely thankful for the technology which saves us having to re-write or re-type as that makes life such a great deal easier. So when I write it up. I edit but do not tend to re-write significantly, more a touch of polish and tweaking.
There is an exception. I rarely edit a rant! Rants do not happen often but they have their own identity. For example, last year on the eve of my major annual medical checks, I saw a horribly offensive and ineffective “campaign” supposedly in the interests of breast cancer awareness. In around fifteen minutes I had spat out my argument and clicked “publish”. That was particularly frightening the post took hold and was in no time doing its own world tour!
Some of my work is quite factual and aims to be informative, for example sharing aspects of life here in Myanmar that would be very different to other contexts. That writing process includes more research than other pieces of work.
The one grain through all of my writing is the hunger I have to move my reader, to touch emotions through my words to prompt a smile or a sigh. I play with words in my mind, turning them over to find the one which is just right, and conveys just what I want to.
And my final word on this should really be a caveat. I think long, and I write long. What started out as a short post has turned into a long one as I have flitted through these questions, just like the little orange butterflies which must be sleeping by now. Oh, I wonder – where do butterflies sleep …………..
This blog tour is ready to leave Yangon. I am passing the baton to two bloggers who I have met online, but never in real life. However, in addition to be amazing women and talented writers, I consider them to be my friends.
I am handing the baton to Canada – to Catherine:
Catherine Brunelle is a Canadian writer and author of The Adventures of Claire Never-Ending. Born in Canada, she met the love of her life in France, studied creative writing in England, swam Lake Balaton in Hungary, and currently calls Ottawa her home. Happily married, she is busy typing on her laptop while attempting to carpe that diem with her best friend and husband, Zsolt.
Check Catherine’s blog here
And to Marie, an Irishwoman currently living in Australia.
Marie Ennis-O’Connor is a PR consultant and blogger with a passionate interest in healthcare social media. A nine-year breast cancer survivor, she is a board member of Europa Donna Ireland – The Irish Breast Cancer Campaign, a patient advocacy group that is one of 46 EUROPA DONNA member countries across Europe. Marie’s interest in the impact of breast cancer on younger women led to her editing a patient information booklet, Younger Women,Breast Cancer and Fertility which is distributed widely in breast cancer centres throughout Ireland. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to survivor on her blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.
Great! We’re connecting North America, Asia, Europe and Australia in one sweep! And I am very much looking forward to reading their posts next Monday.