In times of COVID restrictions, it’s great to have something creative to do at home.
These ‘Learn Live’ online writing courses from the British Library (link) are reasonably priced and include journalism, memoir, and food writing. There are also two study afternoons coming up, one on historic ‘Hebrew Manuscripts’ and one on ‘Global Women’s Rights’.
Joanna Orwin is a NZ author who is also a critique buddy of mine. I can personally vouch that every word in this novel has been weighed, considered and edited many times over.
Shifting Currents is a historical novel set amongst settlers in 19th century New Zealand: Lydia Boulcott has entered a marriage of convenience hoping to escape her past, but in a remote community meets the one woman who can uncover her secret.
The remote kauri forests and the flow of the river set the scene for this beautifully written novel evoking the hardships of the early settlers, the decline of the Maoris and the unforgiving ethos of that age. Lydia’s courageous journey is sympathetically told; the harder she works to hide her secret the greater becomes the gulf that divides her from her daughter.
On the question of whether trans-women should be seen as women, and able to access female public toilets and changing rooms: YES.
It seems that a lot of the debate about this issue on the interweb takes the form of:
Tweeter A: ‘I believe THIS!’
Tweeter B: ‘Why, how COULD you sink so LOW? When I believe THAT!’
We are getting the adversarial jousting of a law court rather than an attempt to understand people with gender dysphoria.
Although I am a cis-woman I speak with experience of meeting and talking to transgender people, as I supported my spouse through transition and have accompanied her to many social events run by the transgender community. ‘Outskirts’ in Birmingham, the English city where we used to live, was a huge source of support.
Stop for a moment, and inhabit your own body, like on those mindfulness courses. Now imagine that, like Gregor Samsa changing into an insect in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you have changed in the blink of an eye and been given a new body: that of the opposite sex. A whole new set of societal expectations rise up in front of you like a wall. People – maybe even people close to you, like your family and friends – reject you for not being what you said you were, what you were supposed to be.
People with gender dysphoria express a sense that they have been born into the wrong body. They desperately try to conform to the gender norms set by society while feeling that these are the wrong ones. Eventually they affirm their innate sense of gender and in doing so are able to be content in their own skin. Transition does not happen overnight, nor is it an all-or-nothing process; it is achieved haltingly, fearfully, perhaps incompletely, and with much soul searching along the way. Some don’t make it through transition because it’s just too difficult. Tragically, some choose to end their own lives.
Gender dysphoria is unconnected with sexual orientation and trans people are no more likely to be sexual predators than anyone else. Probably less likely, in fact. Personally, I have always felt very safe around trans people and the LGBT+ community as a whole. In fact in Birmingham it was common to see groups of cis-women on Hurst Street in the gay quarter. Some were lesbians and others were straight women looking for a night out somewhere they felt safe.
The whole scenario that JK Rowling envisages, whereby a man dresses up as a woman in order to access women’s toilets or changing facilities and carry out sexual assault, probably belongs in one of her novels. In reality, it is an incredibly drastic step for a man to dress as a woman and go out in public. Running the gauntlet of the neighbours’ spying eyes as they go out means that they often make-up at home but take their outfits with them and get changed in a safe place. Most trans-women, especially on their first outings, are absolutely terrified that a member of the public will notice that they are of male birth gender, or even worse, that they will comment on it. Can you imagine how that would feel – and then how awful, how humiliating it would be, if forced to use the male toilets? Fortunately more and more public facilities are designed to be non-gendered.
So, dear Reader, give trans-women a break. Be grateful if it isn’t happening to you. And if you encounter a trans-woman, please remember to speak of ‘her’ and ‘she’, and be kind.
P.S. Having ‘e-discussed’ this blog post with friends I just wanted to add that, yes, people can be unsympathetic, but my spouse and I have also experienced warmth and support from many sources: her workplace before we left the UK; her mom; our friends; a sympathetic article in the Irish Times and the supportive reaction from my colleagues here in Ireland after it was published; our neighbours here in Ireland; even the recruitment firm I dealt with when job hunting in Ireland. And when out and about in Ireland, the general public don’t make discourteous comments. If we’re in a bar or a cafe the staff will usually address us as ‘Ladies’ or even ‘Love’. That might be more to do with the high level of good manners here than with any strongly held progressive views!
My earlier post on this topic is one of the most frequently visited on my blog. So I thought I would add some further comments.
To recap: The date given by Tussaud’s for the waxwork of 1765 is 3 years too early for the figure to be Madame Du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV. One of her biographers, Philip M Laski, in ‘The Trial and Execution of Madame Du Barry‘ (1969), states that Du Barry (then using the name Jeanne de Vaubernier) first met Louis XV in May 1768. Being a member of the aristocracy was essential for her to become the official royal mistress.and her marriage to Comte Guillaume du Barry took place on 1st September 1768.
Now I noticed that Rodama had some interesting theories on her blog including both Du Barry and Madame St Amaranthe, a beautiful young woman guillotined during the Terror for refusing Robespierre’s advances. Rodama also suggests that the image may be a doll-like figure and not based on a life model.
If the date of 1765 is accurate then Louisa O’Murphy, one of the ‘petites maitresses’ of Louis XV could have been the model. This young woman, born in Rouen of Irish (Traveller?) ancestry, had previously been the model for Francois Boucher, one of the foremost painters of the Rococo age, as seen in his painting of the ‘Blonde Odalisque’. Boucher’s paintings had drawn the king’s attention to her.
O’Murphy would have been 29 at that time of the waxwork and although her relationship with Louis XV had waned, there had been rumours of her returning to the Court following the death of Madame de Pompadour in April 1764. If she had been the model I speculate that it could even have been an attempt at self-promotion.
O’Murphy (Morfi to the French) was also linked to the ‘Parc aux Cerfs’ (Stag Park), Louis XV’s private harem. An alternative suggestion is that one of the other girls from the Parc aux Cerfs might have provided the model. The Parc aux Cerfs was set up during Madame de Pompadour’s lifetime, after her sexual relationship with Louis XV ended. It was maintained after Pompadour’s death by Le Bel, the king’s valet, and closed when Du Barry became the mistress. There are interesting parallels with the modern day Epstein/Maxwell case: Madame de Pompadour was rumoured to recruit and ‘supervise’ the inmates.
For a fabulous fictionalised biography of Madame Tussaud, try Edward Carey’s ‘Little’: the voice, the vocabulary and the imagery make it a luxury to read; the text is full of quirky illustrations in the style of the ones on the cover:
To see the work of Boucher in a beautiful (but expensive) art catalogue, try:
My friend Jutta emailed me the letter below, having received it via his father from a Prof Shane Quinn, a professor of English Literature. She assured me it was genuine and not a pastiche. Alas a more informed friend has since debunked it: This is parody written by American author Nick Farriella for the humor site McSweeney’s earlier this month. The text is clearly identified as such at the bottom of the original online publication and now at the top: “NOTE: This is a work of parody and is not an actual letter written by Fitzgerald.”
I still really like it though…
A LETTER FROM F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, QUARANTINED IN 1920 IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE DURING THE SPANISH INFLUENZA OUTBREAK.
It was a limpid dreary day, hung as in a basket from a single dull star. I thank you for your letter. Outside, I perceive what may be a collection of fallen leaves tussling against a trash can. It rings like jazz to my ears. The streets are that empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.
The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.
You should see the square, oh, it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities this future brings. The long afternoons rolling forward slowly on the ever-slick bottomless highball. Z. says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand. In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while. And yet, amongst the cracked cloudline of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better morrow.
An article in the Guardian newspaper led me to Brooke Castillo’s excellent life-coaching podcasts, of which a recent one had been about a Writing Retreat. This 5-day experience sounded bliss: a small group of people with projects they wanted to write; a highly skilled coach; a beautiful large house with all meals and creature comforts taken care of. The retreats were oversubscribed and Brooke gave detailed instructions so that people could run their own. Even then, I didn’t really have the time or the money for this level of luxury.
I have been fortunate enough however to have my own study, a more or less undisturbed writing space, at home. The previous November I had a great experience of doing 30-minute word sprints with my local NaNoWriMo group, which we coordinated via WhatsApp.
Some elements of the two approaches, it seemed to me, could re-energise my writing: I had been drafting and redrafting the same novel using Scrivener for what seemed like forever: Scrivener had gone from version 1 to version 3 during the time.
The NaNoWriMo word sprints had taught me to focus intensely on writing, ignoring distractions and allowing the words to flow uninterrupted from my brain to the page. From Brooke Castillo’s podcast I took the idea of having a strictly timed schedule for each writing session, even though much pared down from her time-rich retreat days. To the actual writing sessions she had added a prior planning session and then a session afterwards of reflection and positive feedback. Another element of her retreats that I adopted was stopping distractions by putting my phone into flight mode and turning off notifications.
I opened up the Notifications Menu on my desktop computer’s System Preferences (I’m a Mac user so apologies if this is being read by PC users, but hopefully you have something similar) and went through every app and turned everything off that I possibly could.
After that my DIY writing retreat sequence now consists of:
1. Turn on the heating in the study – operated remotely by a phone App.
2. Use the bathroom
3. Make a cup of tea
Use Focus timer (a Pomodoro style timer) for the following steps:
4. Flight Mode: 1 minute allowed to turn phone to flight mode and switch on the computer
5. Thinking time: 10 minutes. Don’t write any of the text. Pick a scene and in the Notes pane in Scrivener list the things that need to happen during that scene and also copy and paste any parts of the previous draft to be incorporated.
6. Writing time: 30 minutes. Work on the text itself.
7. Summarise: 5 minutes. In the Synopsis pane write a summary of what is in that section of text so far, update the Label and Status, check the word count and update a running total, while mentally patting self on the back.
8. Stop Flight mode on phone (1 minute)
9. Turn off the heating in the study (1 minute)
The whole sequence takes just under an hour, so it doesn’t eat too much into the day or overtax my attention span. Generally I can increase the word count of my draft by about 1000 words each time – this is a combination of redrafting old material and writing new.
Focus timer can be set up to link the timed steps in sequence so that a visual and sound warning is given for each one. I have an old iPad2 running iOS 6 (so beautifully retro!) which has its WiFi switched off and I am currently using it just for Focus timer.
Scrivener is ideal for this system of work, as the Notes pane can be used for the thinking time and the Synopsis pane for summarising. If an idea comes up during writing time which belongs elsewhere in the text it is easy to find that part of the text in the Binder, or insert a new Scene and type the idea in the Notes.
After using this system a few times I informed my family about it, so they now know that if I do disappear into my study I am most likely going to reappear in under an hour.
I’ll see if I can maintain it…
PS (16/01/2020). This works. With 1 -2 sessions of the Focus timer daily my novel word count is increasing by about 1000 words per day. It’s not stressful to maintain.