TOWARDS THE MOUNTAIN

Most aspiring writers are people who work a full-time job and use their precious free time to practice their hobby of writing. They dig caves into their blankets, settle in with their laptops, and become hermits from the world. I know this because I am one such hermit. This voluntary isolation is the only way I get writing done. And even then, it’s still a challenge. A here’s the reason:

Working full-time is hard.

Most days after nursing in the community I come home, lay on my bed, and tell myself I’ll watch half an hour of television before turning the rest of the afternoon into a whirlwind of productivity. It’s when I realise the sun has set, that I’ve been napping for the last hour, and should probably do something about dinner that I realise my productive whirlwind has wound down to more of a laboured huff.

The balance of working and writing is a hard one to maintain. Ideally, writing is where I’d like to pour most of my energy. But to perform my job, and more importantly, to perform it well, requires energy. Who would have thought?

This results in me soldiering through the working day and deflating in the evening. You know motivation is flagging when even the idea of going down to the shops is a herculean effort worthy of three hours of rest, followed by a bowl of ice-cream which leads naturally into a sugar-crash sleep. And that’s not a pretty image.

The point of the exhausted picture I’m painting is that if you want to create something, it requires effort. Finding the balance of dispersing your effort can be a hard thing, and I wouldn’t blame anyone if their creative projects fell to the wayside under the pressure of simply getting through life. But if you want it, more often than not you’ll find putting energy into a creative project gives motivation. You feel like you’ve done something worthy of note, and that you’re getting to the place you want to be.

To steal a quote from Neil Gaiman, it takes you closer to the mountain.

And that’s the secret, I think. When you’re working on what you love, giving effort results in energy. Even as I’m writing this I’m feeling more awake that I have all afternoon because I’m creating. I’m engaging in an activity that is in itself self-rewarding. I’m walking towards my mountain.

Neil Gaiman said it better, so I’ll let his words do the explaining:

For me, it’s important to remind myself of where I want to be heading, and to realign myself now and then when I notice I’m slipping off the path. And it’s important to remember that motivation can be found simply by starting even when I’m feeling tired. Because every word I type gives me energy and gets me closer towards the mountain.

I hope your day included creativity, motivation, and steps towards your mountain.

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BE NICE TO YOUR NURSE

It was International Nurses Day a week ago so I thought I’d use that neat segue to describe a scenario I’ve experienced when working on the wards, one I’m sure all nurses have faced at one point or another.

I had an elderly patient who’d recently had a hip replacement. The woman, let’s call her Ethel, was a delight. Patient, pleasant, cooperative. She smiled a lot and consequently I smiled a lot. A smiling patient can be a rare thing. Ethel, unfortunately, had to have a catheter post her surgery. More unfortunately, she developed a urinary tract infection.

A UTI is rather common, especially when you’re inserting foreign objects into someone’s bladder, and is treated with antibiotics. For most people it means a little pain and irritation. However, with elderly and frail people it can bring on delirium. Delirium is essentially a fast acting, short-term dementia. In other words, it sends the patient loopy.

Ethel transformed from the perfect patient into a terror.

Sunken deep in her delirium, Ethel held the belief that the hospital staff were holding her there against her will. In her eyes, we were her jailers. She let us know this with a rather impressive and expressive collection of profanity, as well as physical threats. While this made doing even the simplest thing for Ethel a great struggle, a part of me couldn’t help but admire Ethel’s fight. In her head we were the enemy; rather than laying back and taking her imprisonment, she chose to fight. And I mean fight.

Fists swung, feet kicked, and if you weren’t staying alert and got to close to her head, you ran the risk of being head-butted. Ethel was a warrior.

Because of Ethel’s UTI she had to have an intravenous infusion of antibiotics. Luckily she viewed her infusion favourably. Any attempt to touch her cannula was met with, “This is mine! You can’t have it. If you try and have it, it will poison you and you’ll die!” This was a much better reaction than distrusting her infusion and yanking out the cannula, which was the usual course of events in these situations.

One night we had hung her latest infusion. Any interaction left Ethel unsettled so we gave her fifteen minutes to calm down before checking her vital signs. When we returned we found Ethel asleep in her bed. This was brilliant. Her BP cuff was still circling her arm and all it took to measure her blood pressure was the push of a button. Checking her temperature, however, was a bit trickier.

We had a thermometer that had to be inserted into the ear and a button pushed. This sounds simple, but when a person is violent thrashing their head it’s hard to get an accurate reading. A sleeping Ethel was a blessing.

I tiptoed beside Ethel, carefully lowered the thermometer probe, and pushed the button. It beeps as you press it. Ethel woke instantly.

I jerked my hand away just in time to avoid the clacking of her teeth as she tried to bite me. Her eyes darted between me and the thermometer in my hands and understanding spread across her face. Her response was instantaneous.

“You little bitch,” she hissed.

I had to bite my lip to stop from laughing.

After three days of antibiotics, Ethel was back to her charming and lovely self. She had no memories of her delirium, which was for the best.

Despite her reversion back to the grandmotherly old dear, I couldn’t help but remember the warrior that lurked beneath. I was warily impressed.

The point of this story is that this scenario is just one of millions that combine to make what is a rather average day in a nurse’s work life. Threats, physical assault, stress over a patient’s health, juggling ten tasks as once, and trying to decipher medical orders are the hurdles a nurse is facing at any given point, be it day or night.

As you’re reading this there are nurses tending to wounds, bathing patients, administering injections, and stopping sweet old ladies from biting down on their wrists. It’s a strange job, a stressful one, and a rewarding one. And one that leaves you with a lot of stories.

Next time you’re in hospital, be nice to your nurse.

Please don’t bite them.

SPECIMEN

Given that I have had a story recently published I thought I’d offer up a specimen of my writing for people to try.

I’ve uploaded a short story titled White Bone, Red Muscle, which explores the fragility of the human body. It can be found here, or by tripping headfirst into the writing page

If you like what you read and are slamming your fists on the floor begging for more, please feel free to head here, where you can purchase the latest copy of Aurealis featuring my short story, Remembering The Mimi.

P-DAY

Well, the day has come: I have been published. Please wait a moment while I repress the urge to give a gushy acceptance speech…that should do it.

My short story, Remembering The Mimi, has been published in Aurealis #50. If my previous posts have whet your appetite and left your stomach gurgling for more, you can purchase the magazine here. The publication includes multiple reviews and short stories for a very reasonable price, that, in Australia, won’t even cause you to break a note.

This being the first time my fiction has been published, I can tell you, it feels good to see my name in print. Given that it’s an e-publication, I’m tempted to frame my laptop. It’s not very practical but helps the ego.

If you give the story a read, let me know what you think. Here’s hoping it sates your growling literary gut.

TRUDGING THE TUNDRA

Writing is a discipline. And a rather strange one. When you look at it objectively you have individuals who purposely exclude themselves from society to punch away at a keyboard creating people and conversations that exist purely within their own head. If you took away the computer there would be just cause to take these people to a mental health facility.

Of course, subjectively, it’s a discipline that expresses truth through imagination. At least this is what I tell myself. And my imaginary characters.

The frustrating part about the discipline is, regardless of the drive behind my writing, it doesn’t always come easily. Some days creativity pours from my fingertips. I sit as hours drop away, filling pages with perfect lines and creating apt analogies. Words gush from my head and I dance around trying to catch them all on paper. Figuratively speaking.

It’s on these days that I wonder why I don’t just do this all the time. Why aren’t I sitting and creating anthologies of novels to enjoy? It seems so reasonable.

Other days I stare at a screen and hate myself. I type the same three words, delete them, then try them again five minutes later. My brain becomes a wordless tundra. I dig at the cracked soil looking for inspiration and find only clichés and two-dimensional characters. On days such as this I wonder why I put myself through the torture. Why do I voluntarily spend my time writing?

It’s usually at this point that I retreat into a book, get absorbed into the pages, and come out inspired and ready to write. It’s a circle of life thing.

Writing, or any form of creativity, is a strange thing to put yourself through, but it’s because people trudge through the tundra and come out the other side that we get to enjoy the results. Whether it’s writing/television/movies/art/music, someone, somewhere, has sat and swore at a screen/page/script/canvas/instrument because the well has dried up. I just thank whatever god they sacrifice things to that they continued.

And it’s with that thought that I usually suck it up and write something, anything, to grease the wheel and get inspiration flowing again.

It’s a hard journey, but I hear there’s a good view at the end.

THE PRIVILEGE AND RESPONSIBILITY

For those of you who have stumbled across my blog, let me catch you up: I’m a nurse, but aspire to be a writer. This information is relevant as the following post is a combination of both professions. In other words, I’m about to write about nursing.

Nursing is a job that allows you a backstage pass into people’s lives. This is simultaneously fascinating and confronting. Some days you’re thankful for this privilege; you get to see wounds you could fit your fist into, or have intimate conversations with people who are facing death. Granted, these aren’t normally considered privileges, but trust me, it’s rather incredible. It’s an insight into reality. A harsh stripping back of polite society and a plunge into the fragility of what it is to be a human. Picture a dive into cold water; it’s shocking, but also exhilarating.

Other days, however, you wish the responsibility didn’t fall on you. As a nurse I’ve had patients look to me for answers. They don’t see the twenty-five year old man who feels as inexperienced and naive as a five-year-old; they see a nurse. A medical professional. I’ve had eighty-year-old men ask me when it’s going to get better. I’ve had women the same age as my mother cry as I hold their hand because they’re too overwhelmed to hold it together. Mostly, I don’t know what to say. Thankfully, what these people really want is just someone to listen and empathise. I do that, and feel guilty when they thank me for my help.

The following story is a mixture of both aspects of nursing. The privilege and the weighty responsibility. It was an experience that stuck:

On the first day of the year, I learnt that one of my patients had died. We knew she was dying, but it ultimately happened fast. Four months ago they discovered she had cancer. Worse, they discovered she had cancer everywhere.

We were originally looking after the patient’s husband, Ray. When I first met Ray, his wife, Catherine, was in hospital receiving chemotherapy. It was this hospitalisation that brought nurses into Ray’s home to help keep his tracheostomy site clean as Catherine couldn’t attend to his care.

I first met Catherine three months after meeting Ray. To me she had the look of the dying. Pale dry skin, sunken cheeks, a shrivelled frame, and thin wispy hair revealing her scalp. Ironically it was the treatment rather than the disease that caused Catherine to look like this. Chemotherapy is an asshole.

Despite her fragile appearance I found Catherine to have a quick mind and a sarcastic sense of humour. Ray was more quiet, much of this due to his tracheostomy, and unfailingly polite. A fellow nurse described them as “one of those lovely couples.” She nailed it.

Despite her condition, Catherine and Ray carried out their much honed daily routine, of which I was lucky enough to be a witness and occasional player. Breakfast around the kitchen table which carried on into lunchtime. Horse races playing on the radio in the background, crosswords and quizzes from the paper a daily tradition. Often their daughter would be there, easily slipping into the fold of toast and newspapers.

I would clean Ray’s tracheostomy to the side of this scene. It may seem odd to scrape mucous from a hole in a man’s throat meters from where his family are eating breakfast, but the unspoken ease with which they accepted this made the moment poignant rather than unusual.

Catherine returned home from the hospital with a colostomy and needed help tending to it three times a week, and soon she was a patient of ours as well. I would tip Catherine off when I entered that it was her lucky day; she was on my list. She would take her cue and shuffle into the bathroom to begin the process of removing the colostomy bag. Once I had attended to Ray I would knock and enter the bathroom. The image I would see upon stepping into that pink tiled room I still find heartbreaking.

Catherine, her singlet as pale and thin as herself tucked into her mouth, struggling to tug away the sticky mess of bag and wafer from her colostomy site. Her pink glistening stoma squatting in the middle of her sunken abdomen like a parasite. I wonder how she felt when she looked into the mirror and saw a skeletal version of herself with her exposed bowel sitting on her belly. She never said anything disparaging. Never commented on her pitiful state. Often she would joke. I knew she was uncomfortable. Whether it was because I was male, or because of her wasted body, I don’t know. It didn’t matter. I didn’t hold it against her. I was uncomfortable too. I wanted to do something, or say something to ease the tension, but there’s nothing to say when both people are acutely aware that dignity has been replaced with the threat of death. I hated the helplessness of the scene whilst admiring Catherine’s composure.

After a month of tending to both of them, Catherine developed a chest infection and had to be hospitalised. The staff there tried to have her out and home for Christmas but she was too sick. She was never discharged and died on the 31st of December, 2011.

Reading back on this story it appears depressing, and it is. But that’s not the only reason I wrote it. Part of the reason was for me to describe the heartbreaking scenes I am a part of on a daily basis. I needed to describe it because it’s something I face everyday, and something I am expected to carry on with. And mostly I do. But sometimes I want someone to understand the full tragedy of these visits so I can look them in the eye and say, “Isn’t that fucked up? I deal with this everyday.”

The other part is the beauty of Ray and Catherine’s relationship. I don’t care if it’s cliched and sappy. Those two people loved each other and had discovered a comfortable ease in which they lived that love. Most of us want nothing more from life than that. Maybe they had gone through shit to get there, slipped up and made bad decisions. Argued. But at the end, with his wife dying beside him, Ray could still look up, smile, and give the answer for a crossword clue which Catherine would pencil in.

This is the beauty and responsibility of nursing. The consequence of the backstage pass. It is both fascinating and confronting and feels more real than anything else I have experienced. It is a constant inspiration for writing, and more importantly, for living a good life.

KILL YOUR DARLINGS

I recently had the joy of having my short story edited before being published. I say joy because from it I was able to learn ways to improve my writing, structure my sentences for greater effect, and generally trim away the fat. In some incidences I re-read what I had originally written and wondered how I missed such a writing blunder. I was embarrassed the editor had read the clumsy clauses that now, with the clarity of hindsight, blazed from the page like a toddler’s scribblings.

Having someone edit your work is a funny thing. When someone asks to read my writing I offer it up immediately. I slip it into their hands with a greedy smile and await their feedback with a tapping foot. I love hearing someone’s perspective on what I’ve written; part of this is the stroking of my ego, but more accurately it’s because I love to talk about writing. Hearing what people took from it, what was intentional, and more fascinating, what wasn’t, is a source of endless joy.

It’s when they tilt their head to the side and say, ‘This bit, though. I don’t know. I would have…’, that my shoulders tense.

I want their suggestions, I really do, but it seems an involuntary reaction to get defensive. A small part of me hisses and huddles around my work like protective mother cat.

This attitude, of course, is ridiculous. Feedback, providing it’s not the moronic grunting you find at the bottom of a youtube clip, is always helpful. A suggestion allows you to look at your writing from another perspective. As long as you’re able to maintain your work as a fluid, changing thing, alterations should be easy. Quite often the change is necessary. It doesn’t matter how cleverly you think you’ve worded a piece of writing, if a reader can’t understand what you’ve written, it has to go.

Of course, you won’t always agree with certain edits, but even this is beneficial. It forces you to reevaluate your work, twist it around in your head and see what it looks like from a different angle. If you don’t like the way it looks then it at least leaves you more confident in the way you originally wrote it.

By the end of the editing process, when you’ve crammed away the defensive little voice and actually considered the changes, more often than not you have a better piece of writing at the end. And that’s a good thing.

I guess the moral of this post is to be open to changes, to be nice to your editors, and, when necessary, kill your darlings.

It feels wrong, but in the long run it’s the right thing to do.

I hear it gets easier with time.